Fall 2021 | Director's Letter: Investments in the New

For anyone walking the Princeton campus these days—which happily includes many more of our students as we return to in-person instruction—the evidence of the work underway to make a new Art Museum is now unmistakable and undeniably disruptive. The size of the site now encompassed by construction fencing, larger than some might have imagined, makes clear the scope of the project and its underpinning ambition to make a new kind of museum experience for the Princeton campus and community. Equally visible is the ongoing demolition of the “old” Museum complex, as the waves of building that took place in the 1920s, 1960s, and 1980s come down to make way for a facility that will serve Princeton well in the twenty-first century. Even though I am on-site at least every other day, it can be a surprise to see the fast pace of work—a pace that seems likely to be sustained through demolition, excavation, and erection of the structural steel of the new building.

People who know me well know that I am at heart a committed historic preservationist, notwithstanding some of the choices that proved to be essential in making a new museum that will be more accessible, inclusive, and impactful. It is thus bittersweet to see spaces we have known so long being dismantled, the majority of the physical matter of the old Museum destined for recycling and reuse in other locations. So it feels particularly important that we are offsetting the loss of the old with a lively investment in the new, not just for when construction is complete but right now.

First among these are the commitments we have made to presenting works of art in the original for members of the University community and for visitors from near and far. After nearly eighteen months of COVID-19–induced disruption, the galleries at Art@Bainbridge on Nassau Street reopened to the public in September with work by the artist Adama Delphine Fawundu. Encompassing photography, textile, printmaking, and video, the exhibition provided a dense but efficient introduction to an artist who inserts herself into the archive of Black history. The full range of possibilities for Art@Bainbridge will reveal itself serially over time, as our plans call for presenting five installations of contemporary art each year, cumulatively aggregating to something quite special.

The intimately historic spaces at Art@Bainbridge have their charms and their limitations, which have provoked us to pursue—temporarily in this instance—a second gallery space within a short walk of the Princeton campus. This additional venue will enable us during the years of construction to present more ambitious exhibitions and to host scheduled and drop-in activities for students, young people, families, and more. If the Fates smile on us, we hope to have the gallery operational this fall with the first in a roster of exhibitions led by photography that will consider issues of profound impact in our twenty-first-century lives. First up is Orlando, a fascinating exhibition on themes of gender identity and fluidity featuring eleven photographers selected by guest curator Tilda Swinton, the actor who swashbuckled her way through Sally Potter’s 1992 film adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name. Lush and even extravagant, it promises to be rich in food for thought about bodies and nature.

These investments in the new are paralleled in other areas that will be less immediately visible. Teaching has begun in two spaces—Firestone Library and an off-campus location—especially refurbished to support teaching from original works of art during the years of the Museum’s construction. Both are scaled for seminars and precepts and foster the intimate practice of looking at (and even occasionally handling) works of art that has long been a hallmark of teaching at Princeton. Inevitably only a small percentage of works from the Museum’s collections will be available for this kind of investigation, but these spaces will help to ensure that today’s undergraduates and graduates do not face a grave ellipsis in their training during three years of construction.

Similarly, construction is now complete on a temporary but immensely effective art conservation lab also created in a nearby off-campus location. Motivated in part by the essential task of preparing works of art—many of which haven’t been exhibited in many years and which require everything from major conservation to light cleaning—the new temporary lab has been designed in partnership with one of today’s leading designers in the field, Sam Anderson, who is also acting as lead consultant on the art conservation labs being developed for the new Museum. Alongside the creation of no fewer than four locations to house our staff displaced by construction, these investments in the new are enormously invigorating opportunities to think afresh and take a few risks while a deeper process of reinvention unfolds in the heart of campus.

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