Winter 2021 | Director's Letter: Collecting Initiatives

In a museum context like this one, in which the origins of our collections date to 1755, we inevitably spend much of our time looking to the past. As the stewards of collections that are among the oldest in North America, it is important that we understand the ways in which these collections have been shaped—intentionally, opportunistically, and even accidentally—over a period of 265 years. The classic definition of a museum as an institution that cares for collections of objects of cultural or historical importance—what the International Council of Museums, or ICOM, terms “the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment”—also looks to the past. Befitting this winter edition of the magazine appearing early in the new year, I want to share a few of the ways in which we build on the past to shape and reshape collections for the future.

Like those of other institutions of such durability, our collections have been shaped by many historical phenomena—including slavery, colonialism, and plunder—even as they have also been formed by visionary individuals and generous philanthropists. How to act as inheritors of collections created through the very disparate behaviors of the past—in an age of demands to decolonize or even to disband the museum—is a topic for a future letter. Regular readers of this page will know I believe that museums must be guided by more fluid definitions, ones that allow them to engage (inevitably, I would argue) with the wider society and thus with the sociopolitical issues of our time, rather than operating as cloistered houses of collections. Lest this read polemically, let me note quickly that Princeton tends to be a fulsome place, a place where “both” and “and” are possible, where we can continue to teach established histories and disciplines even as we tell or shape new ones. It is therefore not a question of having to choose between collecting along “traditional” curatorial lines or adopting new priorities and emphases. We can, and must, do both.

Where is the new taking us? Within the limits of this letter, let me note three multiyear collecting initiatives about which I am particularly excited. The first builds from a more encompassing definition of American art to include all peoples past and present on the North American continent who have left a material legacy, not just those of European descent. Our historical collections of work made by peoples indigenous to North America are strong but have found inadequate past presentation in our galleries. Through the work of a new Indigenous Advisory Group, we hope to work with these collections in more nuanced, inclusive, and appropriate ways. That commitment coexists alongside another to acquire works by contemporary Native artists—including just in the past month works by makers such as James Luna, Cara Romero, and Marie Watt. In doing so, we will use the coming years to shape more inclusive narratives of the art of this continent for when we open our new building in late 2024.

The second is a continuing initiative to bring to Princeton more works by African American artists as well as artists of the African diaspora. This is not new but builds on a foundation established over the past fifteen years in particular, while signaling that we have no intention of stopping now. Thanks to the generosity of donors past and present, we have an unusual capacity to be intentional in building our collections, enabling us to acquire just in the past few months two works by Carrie Mae Weems from her Kitchen Table Series (joining other landmark works by the artist already at Princeton), three works by Renee Cox, including her iconic Liberation of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben (1998) and Hott-en-Tot (1994), and an extraordinary group of works by the artists Mary Lee Bendolph, Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Henrietta Pettway, and others dating from the 1920s to the early twenty-first century.

The third is the continuing investment in rebalancing our holdings to ensure that works by women artists and gender-nonconforming artists are represented powerfully at Princeton. The boundaries among these initiatives are intentionally and inevitably porous, and I’ve already named works by a few women that have recently entered our collections. But here I will add that we have recently acquired, for example, a number of works by the important Mexican Surrealist photographer Yolanda Andrade, as well as two diptychs by the Yemeni-Bosnian-American multimedia artist Alia Ali that are both politically potent and materially beautiful. As I write, we have just acquired a landmark painting by Mary Cassatt—the American artist who penetrated the broadly patriarchal circle of French Impressionism—bringing a new and vital dimension to the Museum’s collections.

These are but three glimpses into collecting initiatives, joined by other recent important acquisitions such as an extraordinary and captivating Maya jaguar tooth necklace, a magnificent seventeenth-century Japanese folding screen illustrating the four seasons, and a stunning nineteenth-century Philadelphia sofa, to name but a few. The continual shaping of Princeton’s collections is one of many commitments that assures the Museum a vibrant and dynamic future.

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