Campus Collections: The Art around Us

Outside the walls of the Museum building, the Princeton University Art Museum oversees a collection of more than seven hundred works of art in different media that reflect the University’s rich history, traditions, and aspirations. Many of these exceptional works need to be sought out—on the walls, lobbies, courtyards, and corridors of buildings across the university campus. If you attend a concert in Richardson Hall, behind the stage you will find shimmering mosaics by Jacob Adolphus Holzer depicting scenes from Homer’s Odyssey. In the lobby of the Woodrow Wilson School’s Robertson Hall sits a globe-shaped sculpture by artist and designer Harry Bertoia. 

Spread across seventy campus  locations, the collection has grown over time to reflect not only the University’s history but also that of the nation and beyond, telling the story of great movements in art, science, and politics through the individuals depicted and the ideas expressed.

The largest component of the campus collections is a group of more than six hundred paintings and sculptures of individuals with specific ties to Princeton. One of the best-known portraits is Charles Willson Peale’s magisterial George Washington at the Battle of Princeton (1784), commissioned with funds given by Washington himself and on display in the Art Museum. Last summer another portrait of Washington was moved from Museum storage and installed in a conference room in Nassau Hall. The painting is after a Charles Willson Peale portrait that was commissioned by John Hancock in gratitude for the general’s liberation of Hancock’s hometown of Boston from the British. The artist, John Johnston, had himself served in the Continental army and been taken prisoner by the British during the Battle of Long Island in 1776.

The most accessible pieces in the collection are the sculptures that grace Princeton’s campus. During the University’s first two hundred years, public sculptures—primarily commemorative monuments and civic and decorative statuary—were used to embellish campus buildings and exterior courtyards. It was not until 1968, with the gift of the John B. Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection, that sculpture as art was embraced and integrated into the campus plan. Gifted by an anonymous donor as a memorial to Lt. John P. Putnam Jr., a Princeton alumnus killed in World War II, the collection was assembled in six years by a four-man advisory committee of William M. Milliken (Class of 1911), then director emeritus of the Cleveland Art Museum; Alfred Barr (Class of 1922; A.M. 1923), then former director of the Museum of Modern Art; Patrick J. Kelleher (Ph.D. Class of 1947), then director of the Art Museum; and Thomas Hoving (Class of 1953; Ph.D. 1960) then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henry Moore, Oval with Points, 1969–70, Bronze. Place located: The John B. Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection, Princeton University,  y1969-128The artists chosen for the initial collection of twenty-two sculptures stand as a virtual who’s who of modern masters, including Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, and Louise Nevelson. As stipulated by the Putnam gift, the sculptures were not placed inside the Museum but installed outdoors so that students and the community would experience the works in the course of their daily lives. This foresighted vision laid the groundwork for public art to become a vital and ongoing part of campus planning. In the years following, additional gifts of sculpture to Princeton’s campus included George Segal’s Abraham and Isaac, in memory of the four Kent State University students killed by National Guard troops during an antiwar protest on May 4, 1970, and Scott Burton’s Public Table, a masterwork of minimalism and a favored gathering spot for students.

As the campus expands with new buildings and new disciplines, site-specific installations by acclaimed contemporary artists are being commissioned to assimilate aesthetically and conceptually in these new spaces. These include Kendall Buster’s clusters of cell-like orbs suspended in 2011 from the ceiling in Frick Chemistry, Odili Odita’s energizing graphic mural Up and Away (2009) in the common area of Butler College, and Jim Isermann’s chrome-plated aluminum and LED-lit sculpture installed in Sherrerd Hall’s main stairwell in 2008.

In 2009 the University established the Campus Art Steering Committee to provide recommendations to the University leadership. The Committee is cochaired by James Steward, director of the Art Museum, and Ron McCoy, University Architect, and members include Esther da Costa Meyer, associate professor of Art and Archaeology, Kelly Baum, Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Lisa Arcomano, manager of campus collections. The works commissioned will ensure that the campus collections continue to enrich the University community and its visitors by deepening a sense of place and the experience of space, stimulating viewer curiosity and ensuring that public art engages the educational, cultural, and historical dimensions of its environment.

This spring the Museum will launch Campus Art at Princeton, a website and self-guided mobile tour that will provide users with a new level of access to this extraordinary collection through interactive maps, images, and audio recordings.
Lisa Arcomano
Manager of Campus Collections
Juliana Ochs Dweck
Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow for Collections Engagement
The NEW Campus Art at Princeton mobile-friendly website is live!

Visit the website today to discover the outdoor sculptures that adorn Princeton's beautiful campus, listen to audio recordings by curators, historians, and conservators, and read about the history of this one of the country’s most significant collections of twentieth- and twenty-first-century sculpture.

The mobile-friendly website is particularly helpful when exploring campus on foot with your smart phone. You may choose to browse the collection, explore the interactive map, or search by artist.