Spring 2022 | Director’s Letter: Putting Art in the Path of Everyday Life

I was in conversation by email the other day with my colleague Eve Aschheim, the painter and draftsperson, who teaches in Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts. Eve was telling me about the transformative power of a visit with her students last fall to work from a magnificent print by Rembrandt—The Three Trees—which had recently joined the Museum’s collections. The visit took place in a study room we have set up for use while the new Museum is under construction. Eve also described taking students to the recent exhibition of Cézanne drawings at the Museum of Modern Art and the extent to which our Museum’s closure—and the loss of easier, unfettered contact with great works of art—is a hardship for her and, more particularly, her students.

This is a loss I feel myself. In the “old” days, before construction began, rarely a day went by that I didn’t stop in the galleries to visit artworks from the collections or to observe how visitors were engaging with the works on view, including the latest exhibitions. Doing so was not only a way of keeping my eyes “tuned up” to the act of looking but also a source of comfort and uplift on a challenging day. Eve’s prod—to find further ways of making the intimate encounter with the original work of art possible during the years of construction—resonated deeply, not least because I can still conjure powerful moments of close looking decades later.

I can easily go back to my first visit to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, at age thirteen with my mother, when I was troubled by aspects of modern art that seemed alien and confusing but exciting too—riddles to be disentangled one day, perhaps. My mind takes me to the galleries of the Phillips Collection, which I wandered as a teenager and where I wrote my first art history paper—not, as I might wish now, on the magical little room of paintings by Mark Rothko, but rather about Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880–81), whose brushstrokes and narratives (so entwined one with the other) made me eager to discover how such a painting came to be made. Later, as an undergraduate living in Paris, standing in the Louvre in the company of paintings by David, Géricault, and Delacroix, anxiously preparing a travaux dirigé  (directed study) that I would later present to my fellow students—in French and during public hours (extra terrifying!)—it occurred to me that such a setting was a place in which one could have a career.

In my own teaching, I have sought to give students equivalent experiences of their own. In my first “real” teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, I discovered the incredible potential of museum study rooms into which original works of art could be brought unglazed and unframed for in-depth work. A Yuan dynasty hanging scroll we investigated with Professor Jim Cahill; working with Professor Andy Stewart to consider the differences among Attic vase paintings; debating with graduate students how best to present the art of Giambattista Tiepolo: these encounters weren’t illustrative, but rather were essential. Then as now, I thought less about steering a student toward a career in art history or in museums than about instilling new habits of looking—whatever the student’s career path.

I come back to Eve’s challenge: How do we do this without a proper museum during the next few years? Well, we start by working creatively. We shape gallery installations in two downtown Princeton venues, each of them with exhibitions chosen for their potential to forge connections with visitors and link to our campus curricula. We foster object-based teaching at Firestone Library and an off-campus study room, notwithstanding the fact that only the smallest portion of our collections can be investigated in such locations. We privilege the collections that remain accessible, including the Putnam Collection of outdoor public art and works from the University collections distributed across campus. We continue to invest in putting art in the path of everyday life, including three new works of public art that will take shape this summer near the University’s two new residential colleges.

And we continue to teach. My colleague Zoe Kwok, associate curator of Asian art, is weaving magic in a seminar room this semester investigating the artistry, opulence, and innovation of objects made in China over centuries. Bryan Just, curator of the art of the ancient Americas, is once again using objects in his course on Mesoamerican art to awaken curiosity for the people who made such works in a time that might seem unimaginably different from our own. This summer, I shall be delving into the vast new literature about the museum in the “age of equity” to update my course about the possibility of the “activist museum” for spring 2023.

I cannot pretend that the years of construction on a new Museum come without loss, particularly for today’s undergraduates. But if we remain open to finding creative answers to overcoming the obvious constraints, we can continue to make engaging with the original work of art a life-shaping experience, even before the Museum is reborn in late 2024.

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