Collections and Collecting at Princeton | Director's Letter Summer 2016

One of my pet peeves is the habit of referring to a museum’s holdings as its “permanent” collections. The hazard in this, for me, is that it perpetuates the sense of a collection as a static thing—one that exists forever in its present form, or that is presented unchangingly in a museum’s galleries. Neither is true here. Princeton’s art holdings are constantly shifting and moving forward through judicious purchases—indeed we are blessed with significant endowments whose income can only be used for the purchase of works of art—and through generous gifts from our benefactors. In recent years, as the Museum’s visibility has grown, so too have the number of gifts coming to the Museum.

The Museum’s endowments allow us, within the constraints of the art market and its record-setting values, to be intentional in our collecting. In recent years, we have shaped an acquisitions strategy that privileges certain fields and places a high priority on works of art of exceptional quality, works that can be understood as transformational for this museum and important for the wider field. In the former category, for example, we have made a particular commitment to collecting work by women artists, including the rare historical example such as Angelica Kauffmann’s Portrait of Sarah Harrop (Mrs. Bates) (1780–81) as well as significant numbers of works by women artists of the modern period, such as Jennifer Bartlett, Elizabeth Catlett, and Pat Steir, artists whose reputations continue to grow but whose market values lag significantly behind those of their male peers. Other fields of emphasis include works by African American artists past and present; key underrepresented fields in the art of the native Americas, including the ceramics of the Mimbres people; and art from the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, as I write, one of our most recent purchases is an extraordinary nighttime scene from the eighteenth century showing three young girls hunting for deer with the aid of an oil lantern. It is a magnificent work. And then there are the works that are simply masterpieces of their kind, opportunities that won’t come again and that bring new highlights to the collections—works such as an exceptional and monumental Zapotec urn from 350 to 500 A.D., or Fitz Henry Lane’s late masterwork Ship in Fog, Gloucester Harbor (about 1860).

The collections are thus continuously evolving, bringing new teaching and research opportunities to Princeton students and faculty as well as new benefit to all our visitors. But as important—and I would argue even more rare—is our commitment to seeing these collections as a vital and active resource, a commitment we manifest through constant changes to our galleries. I know of no major museum that regards its collections galleries more dynamically. Just since January, we have wholly reinstalled a dozen of our galleries to bring new works to public attention or to afford juxtapositions that invite us to see well-known works of art in a new light or that respond to timely events or diverse teaching needs. For example, the first gallery visitors encounter as they enter the Museum, Marquand Mather Court, currently features a dynamic recent painting by Takashi Murakami, around which we have mounted an installation highlighting the ways in which artists respond to—and transform—disaster or societal disruption through the lens of their own perspectives. Our galleries devoted to later European art present such beloved artists as Chardin, Sargent, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Cézanne in fresh contexts. Our modern galleries reposition artists such as de Kooning and Diebenkorn as pivot points in modern art. On our lower level, our galleries devoted to Chinese and Japanese art are regularly bringing new works on view, often through thematic hangs in which we are able to share fragile masterpieces for a few months, works that otherwise might need to remain safely stored.

Our motives for doing all this are multiple. The University’s teaching needs are perpetually evolving, and we must respond to these needs, sometimes making up for the oversights of the past. New fields of study emerge, or new interest lands on long-established fields. As our interest in globalism grows, so too does our investment in global artistic practice, especially the arts of Africa, Asia, and South Asia. Similarly, we feel a profound responsibility to steward the gifts of the past—to earn the trust placed in us by past benefactors—and in so doing to inspire the confidence of future donors. Finally, we seek to afford every visitor moments of delight and revelation in finding a beloved work of art in new company or in being transported to a past time or a distant people through the discovery of a long-hidden object. Yes, we collect for the ages, but our collections are a dynamic and ever-changing resource.


James Christen Steward

Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director