Summer 2023 | Director’s Letter: The History of Exhibition as Inquiry

When I began my curatorial career, trained as a social historian of art, I was surprised to discover that undertaking broadly thematic exhibitions was something of a radical act in the museum field. Compared to monographic exhibitions—career-long surveys or projects investigating a period, subject matter, or style in an artist’s career—conceptualizing thematic exhibitions was deemed a suspect enterprise. More than once I was asked how art objects could be considered “reliable data” in interrogating a subject of social history. More critically, I was regularly told by lenders that making their works  available for travel to thematic exhibitions was a risk too great for what was deemed a speculative enterprise. It might have been sheer naivete coupled with stubbornness that eventually secured the loans for exhibitions that explored, for  example, the origins of modern childhood and family in the British eighteenth century or the role of masking in the art and popular culture of early modern Venice.

From the advent of the modern-day blockbuster in the 1960s—with projects such as Harlem on My Mind (1969), one of the first museum exhibitions that sought to showcase the Black American experience—to some of the most acclaimed exhibitions of our own times, including Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, held at Columbia University and the Musée d’Orsay (2018–19), exhibitions have brought new audiences to museums, redefined their identities as educational institutions, and positioned curatorial research at the front of art historical innovation. Organizing these exhibitions has not necessarily been easy. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented Harlem on My Mind, it was widely deemed a disgrace, characterized in Black cultural circles as an insult and by the white establishment as, at the least, a terrible error in judgment that nearly got the Met’s then-director, Thomas Hoving, Princeton Class of 1953 and Graduate School Class of 1958 and 1959, fired. Fifty years later, despite the compelling nature of her scholarship, curator Denise Murrell struggled to find a venue for Posing Modernity until the president of the Ford Foundation stepped in with funding to enable the project. This is not to question the appeal of the monographic exhibition or the tightly considered historical project. I suspect when most of us think of the origins of the blockbuster exhibition, we probably think of the King Tut exhibition, which, when it opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in 1976, attracted a line of visitors that wrapped around the three-block-long building. My juvenile self was among them. In our day, the largest exhibition ever mounted of the work of Johannes Vermeer, on view this year at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, sold out its entire run in two days; tickets are so prized that they are apparently being scalped for hundreds and even thousands of dollars.

Such considerations have been in my thoughts as the Museum’s curators and I consider what the exhibition program should look like in the first years of our new David Adjaye–designed building, and as my students and I this spring have looked at case studies in exhibition-making over the past fifty years. At Princeton, we have a history of presenting exhibitions that fall into both of these wide buckets. For example, in 1950 Princeton briefly presented a single-painting exhibition of Vermeer’s The Artist in His Studio, lent by the Austrian government in gratitude for then-Museum director Ernest DeWald’s efforts to salvage it during the early days of the Allied occupation in 1945. Rescued from the salt mines of Altaussee, the painting drew global attention and long lines in Princeton. A magnificent exhibition organized by Professor Robert Judson Clark in 1972, titled The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1876–1916, revived public interest in Arts and Crafts—hard as it is now to remember that the movement had ever fallen out of interest. And only a few years ago, Karl Kusserow’s sprawling exhibition Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment (2018–19) asked us to reframe our thinking about the history of American art and helped give rise to the burgeoning field of environmental humanities. Each of these have been projects with broad crossover appeal that also honored Princeton’s role as an institution devoted to teaching and research.

Our new building will give us dramatically more space for temporary exhibitions. One of the building’s nine interlocking pavilions will be nearly five thousand square feet, double the space of our previous special exhibitions galleries, such that ambitious projects like Nature’s Nation or Kelly Baum’s New Jersey as Non-Site (2013–14) need not be limited by spatial or logistical constraints. Along with a more intimate space of just under one thousand square feet—ideal for tightly focused exhibitions—these galleries will enable undertakings that (re)visit vital historical subjects and consider some of today’s most pressing questions. Several exhibition ideas long in development—from monographic presentations of Minor White and Jean-Michel Basquiat to thematic exhibitions rethinking the place of women in nineteenth-century Victorian art or offering a fresh look at early Chinese painting—are candidates for presentation in these spaces; each promises to further the history of exhibition as inquiry.

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