Art Matters by Robbie LeDesma, PhD candidate, Molecular Biology, Princeton University

In its simplest terms, what is art? Does it exist outside of its definition? Where does the physicality of an object end and art begin? The word art could mean something different from person to person depending on the context. For example, the pictures my siblings and I drew for our parents as children when compared side by side with, say, Angelica Kauffmann’s Portrait of Sarah Harrop (Mrs. Bates) as a Muse (1780–81) might both count as art to my parents, but likely only Kauffmann’s work would be considered art by the rest of the world. Growing up, I didn’t have a relationship with any particular art or artist, and I viewed art as something that was reserved for the highbrow social elite; I felt that art as both a concrete concept and as material objects was unobtainable.

However, after leaving Arizona to attend college in New York City, I took a course on masterpieces of Western art during my first semester and experienced New York as a classroom. I visited institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim Museum, which introduced me to many artists, objects, and movements, giving me a new language with which to engage with art. I visited the city’s museums often afterward, and by the end of college, I had developed a passion for the works of Bernini, de Kooning, Goya, and many other artists that carries through to this day. After beginning my graduate studies at Princeton, I fell in love with the Art Museum’s collections, often spending my lunch breaks and free time wandering the galleries and attending the Museum’s educational lectures and programs. These events fostered a growing desire to become more involved with the Museum and its mission, and one day in my second year, I figured out how.

I began science outreach with the Graduate Molecular Biology Outreach Program soon after my arrival at Princeton, and eventually I proposed a partnership with the Princeton University Art Museum for a series of guided tours. Our volunteers would describe the cultural and historical significance of an artwork from a scientific perspective, prompting discussions on topics such as the chemistry of conservation, the physics of visible and nonvisible light, and the biology of disease. The success of these tours led to my becoming a student tour guide for the museum. Later I was invited to serve as research assistant for the exhibition States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing, which offered me the chance to combine my burgeoning passion for art with my education in molecular biology.

The experience of working on a museum exhibition has completely changed how I will interact with museum installations in the future. Most striking, yet also intuitive, is the fact that every single decision is painstakingly discussed; there are no accidents. Once the list of objects was finalized, I was introduced to the process of planning the exhibition layout, whereby we discussed how to most effectively tell the narrative of States of Health through the positioning of artworks in relation to one another and within the gallery space. Such considerations include the size of each object, the sight lines offered depending on where the viewer stands, the distance between artworks, and how works are juxtaposed with their neighbors. Researching these artworks for wall label preparation with their respective curators, doing independent research on each object to ensure historical and cultural sensitivity and accuracy, and finally, experiencing the heartbreak of knowing that you can never tell the whole history of an object and its creator in 150 words or less was a formative experience.

Seeing the exhibition come to life and the curiosity on the faces of Art Museum patrons after visiting will remain a highlight of my time at Princeton. My involvement with the Museum has opened up the possibility of moving in a different career direction after I earn my PhD. What the future has in store for me is still a bit of a mystery, but what is certain is that my relationship with art, the institutions that house it, and the people who tirelessly work to make art accessible and educational for all will continue to grow. I owe the Art Museum and its staff an incredible debt of gratitude for taking a chance on me—a graduate student from a very different field—and allowing me to use my talents to further the Museum’s mission and to have a positive impact on my campus and local community.