Art@Bainbridge Opening | Director's Letter Fall 2019

On Saturday, September 14, 2019, we plan to cut the ribbon for the recently restored and refurbished Bainbridge House. A block party co-hosted by our new neighbors on Nassau Street—from Landau to the west to the Garden Theatre to the east—will celebrate the renewal of one of Princeton’s oldest structures as the town’s newest visual arts venue.

When the Historical Society of Princeton announced in 2014 that it would consolidate its operations at Updike Farmstead on Quaker Road, the University faced a crossroads in the fate of a building it had long owned. Having served as the town’s public library from 1910 to 1966 and as home to the Historical Society since 1967, the building deserved to be put once again to public use. But in order to welcome the public again, Bainbridge House had to be repaired and strengthened for the next one hundred years, so that visitors might discover in its historic fabric a brush with the past, alongside the powerful presence of the new in the art to be exhibited there.

It seems more than incidental that this new outpost of the Art Museum—to be called Art@Bainbridge, signaling its presence as a gallery project of the Museum featuring the work of emerging artists—should be on the “other” side of Nassau Street. Nassau Street is, after all, the town’s main street, dividing the northern edge of the University from the central business district. One of the few eighteenth-century buildings to survive in the heart of the historic borough, Bainbridge House has faced the University across the street since its construction in 1766, only ten years after the construction of Nassau Hall. In its own history, Bainbridge House has toggled back and forth between community and university—built by a private family, housing members of the Continental Congress while in residence in Princeton in 1783, and much later housing students of the University.

In this, Bainbridge House mirrors some of my own ambitions for our Art Museum, as a research and teaching unit of a great privately funded university seeking to advance the public good. Such ambitions build on a long history. Some seventy years ago, in 1949–50 to be exact, a group of local supporters (mostly, it must be said, wives of then University faculty) joined together to create a community of support known as the Friends to bridge the divide between gown and town and bring critical support to the Museum. The Friends flourish today, comprising some one thousand households who donate funds in support of our exhibitions and public programs. Our docent corps is over fifty years old, and similarly brings community members to the Museum’s aid in providing interpretive support for touring groups and individual visitors. The Museum’s commitment to K to 12 education also dates back more than fifty years, while its focus on the Trenton public schools is some forty years old, affording Trenton’s primary-school students extraordinary and sustained experiences of the world’s art.

The past ten years have seen a renewed focus on building bridges between and among audiences that in many academic museum settings can be treated as if in opposition. Understanding the Princeton University Art Museum as a kind of town square or living room for the campus, we seek instead to position the Museum as a gathering space in which visitors of diverse experience, outlook, and education can come together to find common cause in the world’s greatest art. The strategies we have deployed to invite all Princeton students into our galleries find similar application in speaking to communities across the region. Indeed, many of our largest programs—the Nassau Street Sampler, our annual summer Picnic on the Lawn—are structured intentionally to act as mixers in which community members and University students, faculty, and staff join together.

Especially now, as we prepare for the disruption to be caused by the construction of a new Art Museum (disruption likely to begin in January 2021—so there are still many exhibitions ahead in the “old” museum building!), it’s important to understand the Museum as a public good that transcends its walls. In this, Bainbridge House and Art@Bainbridge will be important tools, putting the Museum firmly in the way of foot traffic along Princeton’s main street and further signaling our invitation to everyone to participate—freely and without impediment (or admission fee)—in the life of great art. As we launch the first year of exhibitions and programs there, we do so with a focus on emerging artists whose work explores ideas of shelter and of “home,” a fitting meditation for a building that was built as a home but has seen many incarnations. We look forward to celebrating and, I hope, strengthening home and community—and to crossing the street literally and metaphorically in historic Bainbridge House.

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