Artist-in-Residence Program: Bringing International Perspectives to Campus and the Collections

Each year the Museum’s Sarah Lee Elson, Class of 1984, International Artist-in-Residence program welcomes an artist to campus for class visits and public presentations. Created in 2010 through an endowment established by Sarah Lee Elson—a collector, writer, and art adviser based in the United Kingdom—the program has included artists from around the world, including from Ghana, Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Poland, Turkey, and the Cherokee and Diné nations.

The endowment also supports the acquisition of works by the artists, ensuring that these international perspectives have an enduring impact on the experience and study of contemporary art at Princeton. Elson, a member of the Museum’s Advisory Council since 2009, recently reflected on the origins and impact of the program with Mitra Abbaspour, Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art:

MA: You were an art history major at Princeton; do you have a particular memory from your art studies that left an indelible impression?

SLE: There were some legendary professors in the department when I was a student. But I think the class that had the most practical impact on me was Robert Koch’s "Art of the Print." We examined Old Master prints and saw how technical decisions convey meaning. For our final assignment, Koch asked us to either make or buy a print for ourselves. I think that was brilliant because it required us either to put some techniques we’d observed into practice or to put our connoisseurship to work. I opted to buy a print from a fellow student, Ann Conrad, who made an etching of the bay windows of her room in Holder Hall. That was my first art purchase and, looking back, marked the beginning of my life as a collector. Interestingly, if I had the choice today, I would make my own, because I’ve become an amateur but enthusiastic printmaker myself.

MA: Do you recall the spark that catalyzed your development of an endowment to support the Museumʼs International Artist-in-Residence program?

SLE: When I joined the Advisory Council at the Museum, I was the only member who lived outside the United States. I was active in the international contemporary art scene, attending biennials, art fairs, and survey shows like Documenta and Manifesta that aim to reflect political, economic, and social change in their curation. I was struck by how US-focused the collection of contemporary art at Princeton was, and I wanted to do something that would expose Princeton students to diverse artistic voices from international perspectives. I hoped to ensure that the Museumʼs collection grows to encompass work by both emerging and established international artists. And I wanted the resulting acquisition to make a meaningful addition to the collection, not just be an artifact of the residency.

MA: Are there outcomes from the program of which you are particularly proud? Have there been results that surprised you?

SLE: One unexpected outcome—one I’m proud of, too—was your [Mitra’s] selection of the Indigenous artist collective Postcommodity in 2017. You proposed them to me the same day Trump was inaugurated, and I remember thinking how brilliant to choose a collective with members from sovereign nations within the borders of the United States. Their very practice is about issues of nationhood and internationalism, borders and territory. I regard that choice as providing exactly the kind of opportunity for Princeton students that I had hoped for, but it was one that I would never have anticipated. It caused me to question my own assumptions about whose viewpoints qualify as international.

MA: Have your ambitions for the program changed since you established this endowment?

SLE: My ambitions for the program have remained consistent: get international artists on campus and new global art into the collections. But I’ve become more alive to the pressure to keep up with new media. Best case in point was last year’s “remote residency” of the multimedia artist Lawrence Lek. We were eager to find an artist whose work would be meaningful during the pandemic, when an in-person interaction with students was impossible. Lek’s virtual talk as part of his residency ended up inspiring a doctoral candidate to focus her research on virtual reality technologies and video game simulation. Artists so often lead the way when it comes to the adoption of new media, not to mention their prescient identification of cultural and social change.

MA: Has your sense of the importance of studying art in an international context evolved since the inception of this initiative?

SLE: Absolutely. I think we’re living through a transformational time when all our assumptions about art are being challenged, and I find that exciting. Because we are more aware of art in a global context, we know how arbitrary it is to tell the story of modernism, for example, through one European-US lens. There are so many versions of modernism! I just got back from Mexico, where I was impressed by Juan O’Gorman, the modernist architect who designed his own home out of a cave. His murals dominate the walls of the Central Library in Mexico City and weave together pre-Hispanic, colonial, and contemporary Mexican history. I think as art history gets reassessed in terms of geographical, racial, and gender diversity, we are benefiting from the knowledge and experiences of a broader population of artists. And the contemporary art audience is getting bigger and broader too.