Why Do Universities Need Art Museums?

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

Alexander Calder's 1951 work
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
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

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

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

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.