Summer 2024 | Director's Letter: Forging Connections

Since arriving at Princeton in April 2009, I have come to see the advent of summer as the marker of many things—the end of an academic year and the well-wishes with which we send a graduating class into the world; the arrival of thousands of alumni and their families for Reunions; the performance art of another P-rade; and the different rhythm of the summer months, during which so many faculty colleagues and graduate students go out into the world, even as a summer’s crop of interns arrives at the Museum ready for immersion in a new kind of learning experience. This summer, as I reflect on these comings and goings, what appears to me to be a through line is the coming together of communities.

The return of alumni for Reunions is a potent example of this. I’ve come to love the special energy of so many Princetonians returning to Old Nassau—a rite of summer that means more to me now that I am the proud possessor of both a bug jacket and a railroad jacket as an honorary member of the Great Classes of 1970 and 1967, respectively. I’m honored to consider many members of those classes and countless other alumni as friends, swapping stories from another year (or five years) past since perhaps they last visited us on campus. That so many of these returning alumni are among those whose support has helped to make a new Museum at Princeton possible, or who are now advancing the cause of further enriching our collections through our so-called campaign for art, means even more. Now we can walk the perimeter of the construction site together as I point out what has changed as completion of the new building draws ever closer. Although it remains very active—with as many as 285 workers on-site every day—and hard hat tours remain impossible, the growing energy is palpable.

Summer reminds me of other forms of community, too, including the many individuals and organizations with whom we partner. It is an especially productive season for advancing collaborative research and curatorial projects. From single-artist presentations at Art@Bainbridge to group exhibitions at Art on Hulfish, many of the projects we’ve developed during the years of construction had their origins in summer workshops, faculty convenings, and the summer research of graduate students, faculty, curators, and others.

Outside the galleries, summer in Princeton is marked by some of our more durable partnerships. For example, we deploy our REACH program—which stands for Research, Equity, Archives, Curation, and History—for students and their mentors from seven regional and national HBCUs, this year offered for the second time in a rich collaboration with the University Library. These days of immersion with students typically coming from college campuses with less extensive art collections have proven to be transformative for participants—some of whom tell us it has been life- (and career-) changing—and for our staff who work with the program, including me.

The students we welcome as part of REACH are not the only ones we invite to join our community in the summer. Our residential internship program takes advantage of the abundance of empty student housing to welcome students from Princeton and other colleges and universities across the country for two months of in-depth learning opportunities in every Museum department. Each summer we hope to impact the lives of these interns and potentially even their graduate school and career pathways. We also like to think we have become “their” Museum, no matter where their studies or careers may take them.

Summer sees some of my other favorite programs, including the outdoor film series that began in summer 2009. What could be better than sitting under the stars on our beautiful campus as a classic film unfolds? One of my favorite summer events is the Juneteenth celebration at the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, which is nestled in the Sourland Mountains, only twenty minutes away from downtown Princeton. This wonderful event celebrates both Juneteenth, as a day of African American liberation, and one of the most historically rich African American communities on the Eastern Seaboard. Both the event and the museum deserve to be better known, and we are proud to cosponsor this day for the third year.

As disparate as these activities may be, what motivates the Art Museum is a vision of art as central to the human experience and of a museum that is a catalyst for deepening our connection to one another. This spring, as the sounds of protest have echoed across campuses all over the country, including our own, it seems to me that we need to forge those connections, enrich our capacity for empathy and engagement, and afford spaces for respectful debate and discovery as never before. Whether coming together to explore a special exhibition, to be immersed in a new learning experience, or simply to escape for a night of watching a film among the fireflies, I invite each of you to be part of a network of communities through which we can all become stronger.

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