Winter 2022 | Director’s Letter: Opportunities during Closure

With demolition of the “old” Museum building now substantially complete and winter weather upon us, my visits to the construction site at the heart of campus are not so frequent as they were, and my thoughts increasingly turn both to the opportunities afforded by the years of construction and to the vigorous efforts now fully underway to shape our new building curatorially. These two themes are happily interwoven in a number of our current initiatives; both are critical to the responsibilities we’ve taken on in making a new museum facility at a time of singular complexity.

With the opening of Art on Hulfish, our new downtown gallery space, on December 4, the Art Museum is now programming two nontraditional venues in ways that challenge many of our received practices. Art on Hulfish occupies a large former retail space and affords rich opportunities to consider different and diverse modes of exhibition practice. By virtue of occupying a storefront space opening directly onto the street, it raises interesting questions, both philosophical and practical: How do we best capture passing foot traffic? What narratives and investigations might we undertake that account for such a location? How can this space function as a bridge between campus and community—a long-standing theme for me—if not better then differently than a central campus location? By museum standards, we’ve been moving at breakneck pace to program and open a gallery that we conceptualized only in spring 2021, and so our first responses—Orlando (guest curated by the artist Tilda Swinton) and Native America: In Translation (guest curated by the artist Wendy Red Star)—are only just becoming visible.

By contrast to that space, which is well suited to thematic investigations, we conceptualized Art@Bainbridge—our gallery space in historic Bainbridge House—as more of a “projects” space for experimentation, installation, and engagement with the historical character of the galleries themselves. The intimate nature of the rooms there, the disruption of so many wall surfaces by doors and windows, and the importance of the building’s historical fabric suggested that it might better allow for the installation practice of emerging artists. The first three artists we will have presented at Art@Bainbridge following a prolonged pandemic-induced closure—Adama Delphine Fawundu, Jesse Stecklow, and Kelly Wang—make clear that Art@Bainbridge really must be experienced serially, each installation building on those that went before to present accumulating insights into global contemporary artistic practice.

This Museum has never before occupied spaces that work as either of these may; we have never before had a projects space dedicated to experimental practice or curation. Both require that we learn new skills—being more nimble and pivoting more quickly; thinking differently about exhibitions, as more provisional than definitive interrogations; engaging audiences more deeply in planning and execution; and opening up the very question of what access means. Absent the timetables of complex institutional loans or expansive accompanying catalogues—“burdens” to which we shall eagerly return!—different modes of inquiry, different ways of bringing other voices to bear curatorially, artistically, or interpretively become possible. I am eager to see what we learn that we can apply to the new Museum.

Carrying out this work in the midst of an ongoing pandemic—just as the speed of our work in curating the new Museum accelerates—inevitably creates both tensions and opportunities. Might some of the muscles we are developing find their way into the new Museum? How can we shape the new spaces we are developing with Sir David Adjaye to embrace more provisional and exploratory approaches? How can we build on the past to shape collaborative investigations that platform more (and more diverse) voices?

Planning conversations for our new galleries began rather informally some years ago but became the focus of concentrated consideration a year ago, with the launch of cross-curatorial, cross-departmental “gallery development groups” that will identify the key investigations with which we will launch the collections in the new Museum. Working groups—made possible with support from Princeton University’s Humanities Council—have helped us think deeply about Native American, Latin American, and pan-Asian art, display, and interpretation. These discussions will be opened out in the coming months to a complex Venn diagram of the communities we serve as we work to forge entry points for diverse users and shape narrative through lines that span disparate areas of the collections and of the globe. Programming two new gallery spaces in downtown Princeton can be both laboratory for and embodiment of these objectives, tangibly reminding us of the power of the social experience of art at a critical time in our society and in our work. Both spaces can ask us to look up—and away from our screens—in ways I am confident will bear rich fruit across the coming years.

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