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Why Do Universities Need Art Museums?

Why Do Universities Need Art Museums?

NY Times highlights Rorschach comments on the history and value of educational art museums.

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Editor's Note: The following article was excerpted from a talk delivered by Kimerly Rorschach.  The comments were featured in an article in Thursday's New York Times. It was also excerpted in this month's Artsee magazine.  

Alexander Calder's 1951 work "Bird" is one highlight of the current Nasher Museum show, an example of how university art museums try to meet expectations of both internal and external audiences.

Over the past 20 years or so, many university museums in this country have matured from somewhat sleepy, internally focused teaching collections to much larger and more complex public museums with ambitious exhibitions and programs and varied audiences. Many have built exciting new buildings or expanded their facilities with renowned architects.

The history of the university art museum dates back to Renaissance Europe, to the phenomenon of the Cabinet of Curiosities, the princely collections amassed privately, and privately displayed, as part of a gentleman's education in the 16th and 17th centuries. The goal was to collect objects representing all the world's knowledge in one room, quite literally.

One of the earliest, if not the first, university museums was the Ashmolean, founded in 1683 at Oxford University, thanks to the donation of (in effect) a Cabinet of Curiosities by Elias Ashmole. This museum was well known to 18th-century British immigrants to the American colonies, and it served as the model for the earliest American university art museums. Even in the 18th century, museum collections were based on this example at Harvard, Dartmouth and Bowdoin College, and there may have been others. Most of these have been dispersed for various reasons and we know relatively little about them, but they included mixed collections of art and natural history objects such as those in the Cabinet of Curiosities.

The first university museum devoted exclusively to art was established at Yale in 1831-32 with a gift from the artist John Trumbull. Trumbull gave a large group of his own historical paintings in exchange for a life annuity. This idea seems to have been generated by the donor, not the university, although the university did determine to accept the gift and make a significant investment in providing a gallery to house it.

One of my favorite resources on the history of university art museums is a curious and interesting little book, College and University Museums: A Message for College and University Presidents, by Laurence Vail Coleman, former director of the American Association of Museums, published in 1942. Coleman's message is that universities must have museums, both art museums and natural history and science museums, to hold and make available the collections that are essential for teaching (in a college) and research (in a university) in the related fields.

Coleman likens university museums to laboratories and believes they are just as essential for any serious institution. He notes that the collections must be accessible, and must therefore be housed in proximity to classrooms, although he stresses that the buildings that house them must be "museum-like" in their aspect, and differentiated from other university buildings. He devotes much space to discussing who should be in charge; he notes the advantage of having a professor in the relevant subject manage the museum, for that will ensure that its mission remains close to the teaching and research mission, but he cautions that this is likely to be unsuccessful if the professor has no particular knowledge or experience of museum management, and that the collections are likely to suffer or even disappear.

Coleman also cautions against orienting the museum too much to the public at the expense of the primary university constituency. It is this issue that has been most problematic over time -- and thus most interesting.

During the 1970s and 80s, the public role of municipal art museums expanded dramatically (and by this time all major cities had such museums). This was stimulated by the new phenomenon of the "blockbuster" exhibition and by the increasing availability of public funds to support museums' activities. These funders included the cities themselves, which usually contributed significant portions of the museums' yearly operating budgets, the new federal agencies including the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Institute of Museum Services and the state arts councils. These government funders insisted that the museums they supported should continue to broaden their audiences and educational impact, for very good and obvious reasons.

This development also affected university art museums, many of which, despite their traditional internal focus, often served by default as municipal or regional art museums for the cities and towns in which they were located. In many cases, parent universities encouraged this, for they were eager to build stronger relationships with their local communities and, especially in the case of public universities receiving large state appropriations, to show that they were giving something tangible back to the community despite their tax-free status. Universities also discovered that their museums were capable of attracting donors and outside support on their own, as it were, and that there was no need to support them financially at the 100 percent level. As they grew increasingly dependent on this outside support, of course, university art museums were ever more mindful of the fact that they needed to engage this outside audience on the level of programming as well as support, and their attention to students and faculty could no longer be undivided.

A tension between internal and external audiences remains a crucial concern for university art museums today.  There is no question that university museums must continue to reach out to broader audiences, just as municipal museums do, but the university museum must never forget that it is in fact a very different kind of beast, with a different mission and access to a different, and very strong, array of intellectual resources within its parent university. University art museums can do things that larger municipal museums cannot do, and in my view they ought to do these things, indeed must do them.

What kinds of things? More intellectually risk-taking exhibitions; real engagement of students in creative and meaningful ways that have the potential to nurture life-long lovers and supporters of the arts; meaningful involvement of faculty across disciplines, that can lead to a broader understanding and appreciation of the key importance of art and visual culture in civilizations and cultures throughout human history; and new ways of thinking about collections, including long-term loans from underused collections in larger museums, experimentation with new media in partnership with related university disciplines and resources, and the building of important collections in new areas not yet recognized by the major museums.

Many university art museums are responding very creatively to these challenges, and they are recognizing that, as for any institution, their strength must lie in pursuing their distinctive mission and capitalizing on their unique resources. Herein lies the creative tension, for most university art museums, including the Nasher Museum, will still be expected to serve broader audiences and to reach well beyond campus, and this requires the deployment of resources and programs specifically to meet those goals, sometimes (it might even seem) at the expense of our work with university students and faculty. But we have a great advantage here in our building, which was specifically designed with these multiple goals in mind. It includes both exciting public spaces and serene galleries, designed with the utmost flexibility for showing works of art. It also contains classrooms and a lecture hall designed with students in mind, and study storage and display areas so that the collections are accessible for student projects and classes as well as exhibitions for broader audiences.

We also provide the amenities that the public has come to expect, and that make a museum visit much more comfortable and pleasant: a café with good food and coffee and adequate public parking.

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