A Generous Legacy: Transformative Gifts Continue to Shape Princeton’s Collections

Princeton University’s first purpose-built museum might never have been constructed if William Cowper Prime, Class of 1843, had not promised to donate his exceptional collection of porcelain and pottery—on the condition that the University build a fireproof building to house it.

Abstract painting with large patches of yellow, light blue, green, and gray.A journalist and founding trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Prime had been tasked by Princeton’s then president, the Scottish theologian James McCosh, to develop the University’s first curriculum in “Historic Art,” an innovative field of study that originated in Europe’s progressive universities. Prime believed that a museum built for the close examination of art was “so necessary to the system that without it . . . it would be of small utility to introduce the proposed department.” His gift of art leveraged a wave of fundraising that allowed Princeton to construct a Romanesque Revival–style “Museum of Historic Art,” completed in 1890.

Prime’s donation of hundreds of ceramics from around the world—known as the Trumbull-Prime Collection in honor of Prime and his wife, Mary Hollister Trumbull—was one of many foundational gifts that came to Princeton over the centuries. More than seventy objects from Prime’s gift—including European porcelain, Iznik ware from Turkey, and ceramics from the ancient Mediterranean—will be on view when the new Princeton University Art Museum opens next year, visible reminders of the generosity that has shaped Princeton’s globe-spanning collections.

This tradition of giving endures as the Museum continues to secure transformational gifts and promised gifts of art on the occasion of its new, once-in-a-century facility, under the auspices of a “campaign for art” undertaken in 2021. The results now encompass more than one thousand objects from antiquity to the present day and from cultures around the globe. Donated by alumni, community members, and other friends, these pieces fill key gaps and amplify existing strengths in the collections, and in doing so, they help ensure that today’s Museum—and tomorrow’s—continues to meet the pedagogical needs of the University and of the wider community.

black and white still light photograph with a bowl of fruit, mirror with a key and pens with ink bottle.The first gifts and promised gifts as part of the campaign for art were announced in 2022 and include a remarkable group of eight modern paintings donated by Preston Haskell III, Class of 1960, including works by Mark Rothko (1903–1970), Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), Joan Mitchell (1925–1992), and Gerhard Richter (born 1932). Among the many other noteworthy new commitments to the collections are an important abstracted landscape by the American painter John Marin (1870–1953) and two remarkable paintings by Richard Diebenkorn (1922–1993), the promised gifts of anonymous donors. The two works by Diebenkorn, a California-based painter who was at the heart of the Bay Area scene for decades—Berkeley #17 (1954), a major painting from the iconic series that established him as an important figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement, and the slightly later Blond Girl in Black Slip (1960–64), which shows how the artist never fully stepped away from the figure—are particularly significant additions to the Museum’s modern art holdings.

A landmark collection of thirty-eight photographs from Alexander “Sandy” Stuart, Class of 1972, and Robin Stuart profoundly strengthens the Museum’s holdings by avant-garde photographers working in Europe between the two world wars—including artists such as Brassaï (1899–1984) and André Kertész (1894–1985)—and in the Americas between the Great Depression and the 1950s. Also among the celebrated photographers represented in the Stuarts’ momentous gift are Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902–2002), Harry Callahan (1912–1999), Walker Evans (1903–1975), Dorothea Lange (1895–1965), and James van der Zee (1886–1983). As a student, Sandy enrolled in the first course taught at Princeton by the renowned photo historian and former Museum director Peter Bunnell, which Sandy has described as “the spark that ignited a passion for collecting.” Fitting, then, that so much of the Stuart collection should now have come to Princeton.

earthenware figure of a female with exaggerated sleeves.Along with the gift of the photographic archive of emeritus faculty member and renowned artist Emmet Gowin (born 1941), photography is emerging as one of the strengths of the campaign for art. Major gifts from Christopher E. Olofson, Class of 1992, substantially add to the Museum’s collection of contemporary photography. Olofson’s most recent donation, Rong Rong’s East Village (1993–98), a portfolio of gelatin silver prints by the Chinese artist Rong Rong (born 1968), documents iconic performances by artists who lived and worked in Beijing’s East Village at a pivotal moment in the emergence of a contemporary art scene there. Alongside other landmark gifts of art by photographers such as Zanele Muholi (born 1972), these commitments substantially advance Princeton’s august photography holdings while forging connections across collections such as performance art and its documentation.

Highlights of these new and promised gifts will be featured in one of three exhibitions with which we plan to inaugurate the new Museum next year, while also punctuating collections galleries throughout the building. Created by makers separated by geographies, cultures, time periods, and media, these diverse art objects are united by the spirit of generosity—patterned after William Cowper Prime and so many other magnanimous donors whose contributions have anchored the Museum’s collections since the eighteenth century.