Taylor paints picture of future museum
By Caroline Moseley
Princeton NJ -- Marked by Picasso's "Head of a Woman" outdoor sculpture, Princeton's Art Museum is easy to spot near the physical center of the campus. Susan Taylor, its new director, thinks the museum also should be closer to the heart of the intellectual and social life of the University as well as the community.
She finds the directorship "particularly energizing," she says, because "We are uniquely positioned to engage with the faculty, to draw on their scholarly research to animate our programs in a way that wouldn't be possible in a museum not associated with a university." Indeed, Taylor believes that "by collaborating with faculty, students and staff throughout the disciplines, the museum advances creative teaching and learning."
She cites an exhibition scheduled for Feb. 7-June 17, entitled "Le Corbusier at Princeton: 14-16 November, 1935," organized in collaboration with the School of Architecture. "Participants in the exhibition include professors Christine Boyer and Beatriz Colomina, who through their contributions will present Le Corbusier drawings in context," she says.
Since coming to campus in August 2000, Taylor has compiled a long "to do" list. Developing a comprehensive exhibition and research program tops the list. She aims to "integrate our permanent collection more fully into museum programs and publications. We are committed to featuring the permanent collection in our special exhibitions program." In the fall, for example, there will be a exhibition of Roman sculpture, in which the museum is rich. The museum will add a permanent collection catalog to its publications and, she notes, "We also need to investigate the collection for possible use in the curriculum."
In addition to major exhibitions, she proposes "small scholarly exhibitions that present new research." With all exhibitions, she says, "We hope to make a scholarly contribution to the field, and make this contribution available to others."
Making contemporary art a priority
Particularly important to Taylor is "the interpretation of contemporary issues and culture through contemporary art." Presentation and discussion of contemporary art -- art since about 1945 -- she believes, is "the most effective way to engage students and other audiences." Hence, she seeks "to develop and enhance the permanent collection, with contemporary art a priority."
Corollary to any plans for expansion or reorganization is "a computerized collections management system," she says. "We need a comprehensive database, digitized permanent collection images, and an interactive Web site that can be used to communicate with all our constituencies."
Taylor is anxious, as well, "to examine our interpretive strategies -- this includes very basic things such as gallery handouts, explanatory wall texts and extended labels for works.
"We're not as good as we should be at helping people with the museum experience," she admits. "We need to make the collections accessible, to demystify the museum experience, make it approachable, so people know what to look at and how to look at it. We want our visitors to have a manageable museum experience -- maximum learning without being overwhelmed."
It is easy to be overwhelmed at the Art Museum, because, says Taylor, the museum is "truly encyclopedic." The holdings "extend from antiquity to the modern day, and include Western and non-Western art: painting, sculpture and works on paper."
The museum does have particular strengths. "We are noted," she says, "for our pre-Columbian collection; our photography collection; our Old Master paintings and drawings; and our Asian holdings" -- here, she cites Princeton's exhibit of Chinese calligraphy, "The Embodied Image," which was recently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and will open at the Seattle Art Museum in March.
In pursuit of a museum "more engaged with the University," Taylor has had numerous meetings with faculty, students and staff. She plans many more sessions to help formulate plans for Princeton's museum of the future. "Princeton's commitment to undergraduate education," she believes, helps explain "the enthusiasm the faculty has shown in helping the museum become more integral to the life of the University."
Taylor is eager to hire a number of special area curators, particularly a curator of education -- the latter a new position at the museum. Currently, she says, "We have no department of education at the museum. All our outreach and teaching has been done by the hard-working docents; the new department will determine the different types of outreach to the community."
As one of the most public units of the University, Taylor says, "The museum reaches beyond the campus to engage in social and intellectual exchange that strengthens the museum's ties to the community." The museum offered a popular Jazz Night in November and again in January, open to the campus community and the public; both featured music by the Ellipsis Jazz Project, and, at the November event, two gallery talks. A special holiday sale in the Museum Shop for students, faculty and staff, drew more than 500 customers.
Though the museum already plays host to about 1,000 children every month during the school year and welcomes approximately 100,000 visitors annually, Taylor wants to make the museum more accessible to children and adults in the community. "We face huge challenges," she acknowledges. "Many people simply don't know where the museum is, or how to get there, or where to park. As a public institution, we owe it to the public to do a better job of telling them where we are and what we do."
In addition, she says, "We need to be more strategic about developing programs for specific audiences -- targeting, for example, the younger families in Princeton.
"The museum has a fine collection, a talented staff, dedicated volunteers and the support of the University, as well as a real community in the area -- people live and work and play here," observes Taylor. "We just need to pull all these pieces a bit closer together."
Taylor came to Princeton after 12 years at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College, where she was director and chief curator. Before taking on the Wellesley position, she coordinated exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. She received her B.A. from Vassar College in 1977 and her M.A. from New York University's Institute of Fine Arts in 1986.
The museum she now heads occupies the site of Princeton's original 1890 museum. Dedicated in 1966, and renovated and enlarged in 1989, the museum shares an entrance with McCormick Hall, which houses the Department of Art and Archaeology and the Marquand Art Library.
Even without her "to do" list, Taylor has plenty to do. "A museum director," she says, is charged with "a little bit of everything." Taylor is "responsible for the overall strategic direction of the institution." There are "curatorial responsibilities, which include organization of exhibitions, outreach, acquisitions and gifts to the museum." There is "administrative oversight, which includes financial affairs and the physical plant." There is "a responsibility to respond to our educational priorities, which for a university museum is particularly important." There is "our public aspect -- how we position ourselves in the region, where we stand with peer institutions." And, inevitably, there is fund raising.
Mainly, says Taylor, "I have to be able to step back and look at the big picture, and think how best to advance the museum's mission."