Museums as "activist" institutions | Director's Letter Fall 2018

Fall has always seemed to me to mark both endings and beginnings, particularly as I’ve spent most of my adult life living by the academic calendar. Just as summer comes to an end and autumn acts as a kind of beautiful golden slide into winter, a new academic year arrives and with it a host of students discovering their own version of the Princeton experience. With these students inevitably comes a heightening of activity within the Art Museum, this fall anchored by the extraordinary exhibition Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment. From its earliest work dating from 1710 to a host of contemporary objects, this exhibition is not only among the most ambitious we have ever undertaken—it includes some 120 works from seventy lenders—it attempts something fundamentally new. Through masterpieces by many of the greatest artists of American art history and works by lesser-known figures past and present, Nature’s Nation seeks to tell a new story of American art in relation to the central roles that nature and the environment have played in American identity.

When our curator of American art, Karl Kusserow, first mooted this exhibition concept to me a half dozen years ago, it seemed an important project with implications for how we see our relationship to the world around us and to the past, including how attitudes about our environment have evolved over time and how artists have been shaped by, and shaped, that evolution. But a backdrop of national debate about the future of the natural world and human causality for climate change render it a more provocative exhibition than we might have imagined. Even as it remains a unique opportunity to explore extraordinary works of American art brought together in a way that shall surely never happen again, Nature’s Nation assumes a mantle of urgency and critical discussion that will go well beyond the aesthetic and even the academic. To be clear, we did not intend this exhibition to have activist motivations and readings, but in the time in which we live, it is hard to see how such readings will not be made and assigned to it.

I have thus spent a great deal of time lately thinking about whether and how art museums have operated, and might now operate, as “activist” institutions. By this I do not mean as proselytizing, partisan institutions, but rather as ones that ask important questions and show work that might well foster debate and a reconsideration of accepted readings, and thus act as agents of change. There is certainly a history of exhibitions that have operated in this way, intentionally or not. The West as America was mounted by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1991 to reconsider images of the American frontier—and became a lightning rod of controversy over matters of revisionism surrounding the history of American conquest and expansionism. In 1994 Black Male at the Whitney Museum of American Art equally encountered criticism as being intentionally sensationalist in its investigation of images of black masculinity in American art. In my view, both of these examples and many more continue to warrant analysis and investigation, even if we ought at times to be critical of their purposes and strategies. Both will feature—along with a number of other case studies, including Nature’s Nation—in the undergraduate course I am teaching this fall, entitled The Museum between Preservation and Action.

Nature’s Nation comes at a moment when our relationship to the world around us—and our understanding of human life as a part of the natural world—is a subject of increased scrutiny. Drawing on the tools of ecocriticism—a critical theory up to now primarily applied to literary works—Nature’s Nation posits rich, complicated, and at times probably uncomfortable readings of great works of art. But I fully expect that the power of the exhibition will derive from the extraordinary objects on display—works that provoke their own questions, meanings, and interpretations—and that the tools that Karl and his colleagues have brought to bear on these works will challenge us to look afresh at one of the greatest traditions in American art, namely representing landscape. So long as the work of art leads the way—and ultimately demands that we reckon with its richness, rather than operating illustratively to support or undermine a theory—then I embrace the power of such an exhibition to connect to the most important questions of our time. It is my hope and expectation that Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment will combine great visual pleasure with provocation toward new ways of seeing—and isn’t that a fine thing for any museum?

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