Exhibition Evolution | Director's Letter Winter 2020

The modern-day museum continues to owe much to its origins in the eighteenth century. Organizing rubrics such as delineations between fine art and archaeology or natural history, the focus on national schools and traditions, or the very idea of chronology as an inevitable structure all derive from Enlightenment modes of organizing knowledge. Much as such structures offer useful tools for ordering information, they can also impose overly simplistic ideas of the linear march of time, typically based on the European model. Not very long ago, that was largely the way the teaching of art history was conducted—a walk through the “isms,” one leading inexorably to the next, with perhaps a brief aside to consider the non-Western. An hour or perhaps two in Art History 101 devoted to the arts of Africa was an innovation in my own undergraduate years.

Many in the business of contending with the history of art or material culture in the space of the museum have long sought productive ways of challenging this model. We who grapple with these issues in academic settings have the advantage, I think, in working with and around scholars operating in postmodern and postcolonial arenas, especially in fields that involve intersectionality—the intersections of race, class, and gender. But the productive examples in which new models have been attempted in museum practice are fewer. Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum, organized for the Maryland Historical Society in 1992, was paradigmatic for a number of reasons, not least the ways in which it invited museum visitors to construct their own meanings across traditional categories. But the very fact that I continue to teach that groundbreaking exhibition in 2019 is evidence of how rare are these pioneering instances of complicating (but not forgetting) Enlightenment constructs.

All of this is top of mind for me now because of the reinstallation and rethinking of the collections at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, as part of its most recent expansion. The most fundamental shift in approach at MoMA is an embrace of the idea that history is ever-changing and that this should be manifest in galleries that are themselves constantly changing, rather than fixed. If history, and our relationship to it, is to be understood as fluid, then so too must be the selections of works presented in the galleries—even at the risk of displacing beloved icons. As curator and former director of the Walker Art Center Olga Viso has put it in ARTNews, curatorial interjections—even among the most beloved works in MoMA’s  collections—now offer “a nuanced historical reshuffling that surfaces new actors without diminishing the unimpeachable icons.” The result is a porosity that seems to mirror the flux of our times.

For regular visitors to Princeton’s galleries, this should be a familiar phenomenon. We adopted this approach to many of our collections galleries a decade ago, for both philosophical and pragmatic reasons. Since we are able to show so little of our collections at any given moment, treating our galleries as fluid spaces allows us to show more of our holdings over the course of a year or several years. Inviting our most iconic works to find new neighbors allows even the most beloved and sought-out works to propose new ways of being seen and understood. As Viso notes of MoMA, decentering works by iconic artists “effectively resets the playing field, creating space for alternative voices to register on their own terms and a platform for new scholarship around the interdisciplinary exchange between artists at the time.”

Such efforts at Princeton as at MoMA require other shifts in institutional behavior if they are to be successful. If we are to deploy new ways of considering artistic practice past and present, then the collections must support this. To that end we’ve made a dedicated effort to acquire more works by women artists and artists of color for over a decade now and to open out our engagement with contemporary practice to more international contexts. Efforts such as the Sarah Lee Elson International Artist-in-Residence program and several multiyear collecting initiatives have been critical in this regard. The results have been notable, from paintings by the rare eighteenth-century woman painter Angelica Kauffmann to works by Cecilia Vicuña, Kara Walker, and Titus Kaphar, among many others. But there is much still to be done, much of which will outreach the grasp of our purchase monies and require the generosity of the wider Princeton family to enable us to engage fully with complex, nuanced narratives and questions.

Change of the kind I’m describing is not whole cloth. Structures—including chronologies, lineages, and causalities—serve important purposes, not least in shaping comprehensible experiences. But what is required is a spirit of adventure or even of courage among curators, educators, and museum leaders—adventure of the kind to be found in our recent exhibition States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing, which drew from wide-ranging cultural traditions to consider themes that have been investigated for centuries. In the face of our plans to design, construct, and curate a new building whose architecture itself might enable these opportunities, I am profoundly excited by the change that lies ahead for our institution, and the opportunities for experimentation such change will afford.

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