Spring 2024 | Director's Letter: Rediscovering Old Friends in New Settings

It probably won’t come as a revelation that I became a museum professional because of both my love of objects—of interrogating works of art in the original—and my love of museums, including my belief that they are uniquely powerful spaces of encounter and gathering. These past years, then—from the time we closed the galleries suddenly with the onset of Covid in March 2020, followed by the years of the building’s demolition and rebuilding—have felt a bit abstract, like wandering in the wilderness without access to the very things that feed me as an art historian. Grateful as I am for the opportunities we are shaping in both of our downtown Princeton galleries, I miss the ease of walking into the Museum’s galleries to spend a few minutes with a powerful work of art or to observe visitors experiencing the range, depth, and quality of what was on view.

Little, therefore, could give me more delight than the chance to spend time recently in the company of great works of art. As the opening of the new Museum in 2025 draws nearer, our work has moved from the abstract and conceptual to the specific, as we shape checklists and interpretive approaches for the building’s inaugural hang. There are important and exciting opportunities to be with objects, whether in considering the final conservation choices for an Italian painting, whose greatness was hidden under generations of wear and bad restoration, or choosing a frame for an important nineteenth-century French painting, which was languishing in a bad frame from a later period.

Another ideal moment for being with objects presents itself as we finalize the color and fabric choices for galleries that currently exist only as abstractions on paper (or screen) and onto which we are layering our imaginations. The opportunity to use fabric selectively on the walls or in the cases that will house three-dimensional objects demands lingering over objects brought into each other’s company as a test of how they will live together and how color and texture will amplify and deepen our experience of them.

Color in the gallery context is something I’m passionate about, even as I respect the value of the “white cube” experience. And it’s something for which I would argue we became known in our former galleries and exhibitions. The bold use of rich and varied colors was one of the most important tools we had to reshape architecturally limited gallery spaces. Our ability—for it is a learned muscle—to work with color is one we won’t forget, even as we inhabit galleries scaled and proportioned to work more effectively in support of the diversity of the collections. Testing Claude Monet’s painting of the Japanese footbridge in his gardens at Giverny or the renowned Princeton Vase—a masterpiece of Maya art—against different color and fabric options feels both familiar and intensified after a few years with few such opportunities, at least here in our own Museum.

It has, happily, been a time of wonderful exhibitions in other museums, which while perhaps less convenient, provide incredible moments of visual experience. Exhibitions like the recent Manet-Degas project at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to which we lent, or the exhibition of Mark Rothko’s paintings on paper at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, have been, for me, both intellectually rewarding and profoundly emotional experiences. I’m not embarrassed to admit to tears in front of Rothko’s more intimately scaled works gathered in a way that we are unlikely to see again in our lifetimes.

All of this is a precursor to what awaits us in Princeton’s own galleries when they open next year. How exciting to rediscover old friends in new settings—in the company of equally familiar works or accompanied by chronologically or culturally surprising new neighbors. I yearn to encounter our remarkable thirteenth-century Guanyin as it acts as sentinel in our new galleries of Asian art. How wonderful to share areas of the collections that have been transformed through growth since we last stood in the galleries, from African textiles to European and North African Judaica to pottery from the American Southwest. How arresting to encounter beloved favorites newly restored, allowing us to see their integrity and purpose more clearly than we have in decades if not centuries—including works such as our early fifteenth-century alabaster gisant, or sleeping knight (which incidentally we didn’t know was alabaster until we conserved it!), or the remarkable medieval Spanish staircase reconstituted to allow us to understand its function and decoration for the first time since its arrival in Princeton in 1955.

I have written before about how important gathering has felt to me both in the wake of Covid and in the context of these times of polarization. Coming together to find solace or be challenged to think differently feels to me more precious than ever. Within a great art museum, that gathering should be to a purpose—not only of welcome and community building but also of provoking close and slow looking. My eyes are hungry. I hope yours are too, as we look to rediscover Princeton’s extraordinary art collections with our own eyes next year.

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