Art Matters by Louise S. Sams, Class of 1979

I do not have vivid memories of my first visit to an art museum or my first exposure to “fine art.” I do remember with clarity certain works of art or certain museum visits over the years that made an impression, inspired, or provoked me. Through these experiences, I can plot my arts education and an evolving taste. The constant is a positive experience with the visual arts, perhaps even an enduring optimism about human beings because of their capability for such creativity.

I have found art museums to be welcoming places, a home away from home, a quiet sanctuary of introspection and learning, albeit shared with others. Regardless of the circumstances, I have found comfort and stimulation in museums and a kinship with my fellow art-goers, strangers to me, but connected to me through a common interest.

As I grew up, whether it was through school, a painting class, or coffee table art books, I became familiar with what one might consider “famous” works of art and my love of art began. One older sibling introduced me to Salvador Dalí while another was obsessed with M. C. Escher and Joan Miró. Whether an accurate memory or a distortion of time, I recall being introduced to the works of both Mary Cassatt and Georgia O’Keeffe when I was young. Is it just a coincidence that works by female artists were part of my early introduction to art? Or did my mother intentionally bring those works to my attention? I would bet on the latter.

My real visual arts education began once I arrived on the Princeton campus, where I was fortunate to take several art history courses and become familiar with the Princeton University Art Museum. While spending time in photo-study rooms with budding art history majors was intimidating, I learned from my fellow students, hearing their perspectives on various works of art. It was also at Princeton where I gained an appreciation for a broader spectrum of visual art, both through greater exposure to art and from a better understanding of the influence that earlier works had on those created in the present.

During my four years at the University, I learned my way around New York City with the Whitney, the Frick, and MoMA as points of reference. How can I forget my visit to the Whitney when I saw Edward Hopper’s paintings for the first time? Whether in Princeton or Manhattan, a visit to a museum could clear my head or reinvigorate me. The stimulation of seeing works of art took my mind off mundane worries, and I was transported to the other worlds or dimensions created by the artists.

When I took my first trip to Europe during a college summer and found myself on a solitary adventure (unexpectedly so!), I found great comfort in museums. I was alone, but I wasn’t. Then, as now, I could focus entirely on the art before me, or I could spend my time watching my fellow art lovers react to the pieces around us. When I visit an exhibition, I will often watch to see which paintings draw the biggest crowds or which works of art seem to require the most time to appreciate. While each of us brings our own perspective to a work of art, seeing art in a museum is a shared experience, which can enhance one’s understanding of the work.

I will state the obvious and repeat myself: the visual arts can inspire, perplex, provoke, and educate. Works of art can raise a political issue or make a social statement. Through art there can be discovery as artists provide us with a different view on historical events, the world around us, or a simple object. Do I love all works of art? No, but can I be enriched by all of them? Without a doubt. At a time when human beings need to find common ground, I look to the visual arts as a connector, as a means to a dialogue about different perspectives. And I look to art museums as the venues for that discovery.

Louise S. Sams, Class of 1979
Art Museum Advisory Council Member