Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

November 17, 2004:

Marcus Burke ’69 is paintings curator at the Hispanic Society of America in New York. (courtesy Hispanic Society of America)

The power of a painting
Marcus Burke ’69 revitalizes Spanish art museum

As an English major, Marcus Burke ’69 read the great masters of literature, but it was a painting that gave his life direction. One day during college he visited New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art where he saw a depiction of the Madonna and Child by the 17th-century Spanish master Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. He was awestruck. “I realized how much power was pouring out of that canvas on me,” Burke says.

That experience helped push Burke to become a scholar focusing on Spanish art. Since earning a Ph.D. from New York University Institute for the Fine Arts, he has taught art history, religion, and art, and a hybrid studio/art-history course at colleges and universities, and been a curator at several museums. Since 1995, he’s been the curator of paintings at the Hispanic Society of America, which is a museum, library, and study center in New York. The Hispanic Society, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, is considered the best center outside Spain for research on Spanich art, literature, and culture. Its collection includes paintings by El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya.

Burke has “brought the Hispanic Society to the attention of a much wider audience,” says Jonathan Brown *64, who taught Burke about Spanish art in the art and archaeology department at Princeton and later supervised his doctoral dissertation at NYU. Burke and his fellow curators have mounted monthly exhibitions, reached out to disadvantaged schools, and exhibited the Hispanic Society’s works at other museums.

What Burke likes most about his job, he says, is “literally getting your hands on great works of art and knowing them very well.”

Burke, who is also a Baptist minister, served as campus chaplain at NYU and was on the faculty at Yale Divinity School; today he preaches in New York-area churches. There is some overlap between religion and art in his work at the Hispanic Society. Because much Spanish art depicts religious scenes, he writes about visual symbolism in the works and about the role of art in the life of faith. The work of a curator is similar to that of a minister, he says: “Both require a certain evangelical attitude, and an ability to get people to take their minds off the daily world and focus on higher things.”


By David Marcus ’92

David Marcus ’92 is a frequent contributor to PAW.