Art Matters by Deborah Prentice

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job as Princeton’s provost is overseeing the Princeton University Art Museum. The Museum, with its extraordinary collections, talented staff, and generous supporters, is a continual source of exciting new projects and creative collaborations for the University community and increasingly the world beyond. One of my “responsibilities” is to keep up on all of the Museum’s projects—to attend ribbon-cuttings and exhibition openings, listen to the artists and curators describe their work, keep the beautiful exhibition catalogues on my office coffee table, and, best of all, experience the art. It’s nice work if you can get it!

I have not always kept up with the happenings at the Art Museum. I do not remember when I first discovered the Museum, but it was some time after I arrived on campus. For many years, I viewed it as a good destination for out-of-town visitors and a convenient place to pick up an elegant gift on the way to the Dinky station. Nothing more. Although I am an art lover and an avid museumgoer when I travel, I was slow to take an interest in the museum next door. Over the last decade, however, the Museum has become increasingly difficult to overlook. With its superb exhibitions, wonderfully creative programming, and strong outreach efforts, the Museum has become a destination par excellence—for members of the campus community and communities throughout central New Jersey and for art lovers up and down the Northeast Corridor. I have developed a close, personal relationship with the Art Museum, and not just because I have responsibility for it. When the University was going into lockdown in March in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the last things I did before closing up my office was to dash over to the Museum to see the exhibition of Cézanne rock and quarry paintings. In that moment of sadness and loss, seeing those paintings felt like a small victory.

The Museum is now embarking on its most exciting project in decades: its own metamorphosis. The Museum will close its doors at the end of the 2020–21 academic year and reopen in late 2024 in a rebuilt and greatly expanded facility on its present site. The new Princeton University Art Museum will include much more gallery space for the collections and special exhibitions, additional object study rooms, a conservation lab, an education center, and new teaching and office spaces for the Department of Art and Archaeology. These and other new spaces, along with Marquand Library, will be contained in a radically reconceptualized facility that emphasizes permeability, light, and most of all accessibility, in all senses of that word. It will be a Museum that enhances the experience of the art, the campus, and the community. In my overseer role, I have had a front-row seat to the collaboration between the architectural team, the Museum team, and the capital projects team that has produced a truly inspiring vision for the future of the Art Museum. That vision is just now becoming public, and I look forward to the excitement it will generate.

For me, though, the most gratifying part of the project thus far has been the conversations it has prompted with Princetonians of all stripes about their relationship with art and with the Art Museum. I have heard wonderful stories about how a course on Italian Renaissance painting kindled a lifelong passion, how all Greek vases looked the same until the Berlin Painter exhibition, and how one might see oneself for the first time in feminist art from the Fertile Crescent. I have heard the Museum described as a temple, a sanctuary, a womb, and “better than a pickup bar”; I have also heard various renditions of why Marquand Library is the best place to study on campus. These are feel-good conversations, and I have had many of them. I have also had many conversations with alumni and others who spent significant time on campus and never made it to the Museum. When I ask why, the most common response is, “Nothing ever took me there,” spoken with regret and a touch of embarrassment. I understand that response. Nothing took me to the Museum for the longest time, and I consider that a shame in retrospect.

That’s why my favorite design feature of the new Museum is the “art walks”: a pair of intersecting pathways through the ground floor that allow one to pass through the Museum on the way across campus. The pathways are oriented north-south and east-west, so whichever way one is heading, the distance is shorter cutting through the building than walking around it. The “art walks” lower the barriers, physical and psychological, to entering the Museum. They say, “Come through. You are welcome.” I hope and expect that they will draw people into the Museum and up into its galleries to visit the magnificent exhibitions and collections. But even those who take the “art walks” simply to save steps will have an inspiring visual experience along the way.

Deborah A. Prentice
Provost, Princeton University