Moments of Awakening | Director's Letter Summer 2017

I didn’t go to university intent on becoming a historian or museum professional—and certainly never had the ambition of becoming a museum director. My interests in the arts and humanities were wide—from Chekhov to American history to neoclassical architecture—and I had an unformed notion of a career in public service, perhaps in the law. But I remember clearly how a new idea of a future began to form. The lights would go down in an auditorium just off the Lawn in Charlottesville, and the magic of Art History 102 would begin, as Frederick Hartt began to weave stories of the visual genius of the Italian Renaissance, or of the birth of the modern in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A couple of years later, curators from the Louvre and the Centre Pompidou, teaching at the Sorbonne and the École du Louvre, would further that sense of journey and discovery as we dug deeper into the way in which great works of art were shaped by their times and how they conveyed meaning.

Almost everyone I know who admits to having undergone a time of magical awakening to a new discipline can still describe clearly the people who launched that awakening—and even the very moments when it happened. A Roger Shattuck inspiring in them a love of Proust. A Paul Gaston thrilling them to the complexities of Southern history. In hindsight it often does feel like a kind of alchemy. At the time, it simply meant that I couldn’t stop reading Faulkner or Ruskin.

I remain a deep believer in the power of great teaching and of committed mentorship. Over the years of my education and early career, I was mentored both well and badly, and have since pursued a career on the conviction that paying it forward matters. Taking the time to sit with a student and encourage her or him to take risks, or stick with it, or challenge their current insights—understanding that they will be supported. Appointing a curator with the character and inclination to relish the teaching moment, whether it be in the classroom, the galleries, or in the field. Encouraging all of us to hold onto, and be willing to share openly, our core humanity in the face of career success (or failure).

Little thrills me more in this museum or on the Princeton campus than the evidence of inspiration drawn from a great teacher or mentor. Recently, I’ve heard more stories than usual of this kind of experience. Several Princeton undergraduates have told me how their academic and professional ambitions have been reshaped by transformative experiences with this museum and its curators, or with great works of art. I recall the engineering major telling me of his decision to pursue graduate work in art history in order to eventually work as a curator—and my thought that I should apologize to his parents for his loss of future income! I recently learned of a precocious high school student (one with seven years of Latin already under her belt) who admitted to a new passion for archaeology and ancient art thanks to our exhibition The Berlin Painter and His World. How lovely to see that the magic still happens.

When I’m asked what sets the Princeton experience apart, I usually note that one factor is the opportunity to be mentored by senior figures in so many fields of study. This is possible due not only to the widespread excellence of our faculty but also to the relative intimacy of the place: It is still possible for undergraduates to undertake sustained conversations with the greatest minds in their fields. Much the same is true of the Art Museum. The collections are both wide and deep and contain works of art of the highest caliber. Our curatorial and education staff is now ample enough to mentor growing numbers of students in the classroom, or on independent studies and theses, or during internships. And yet the experience of visiting our galleries retains an intimacy of experience that can foster sustained looking. Yes, you can run the gauntlet from ancient China to contemporary Europe on a single visit—but the scale and pace can also invite slow looking at single objects.

I write just as another senior class has submitted its theses and prepares to embark on new journeys, and as newly admitted students make their decisions to join us at Princeton. To those who will arrive soon, I hope your years here are filled with moments of awakening. To those whose plans now take them away from Princeton, I hope your journeys include great mentors throughout your lives, and experiences of great works of art—visual, literary, musical, architectural—that delight, inform, and provoke.

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