Sharon Lorenzo tours the Ivy League museums.
As the large museums in our country struggle with the rules and regulations of de-accessing works of art from their collections, parts of which are often parked in off-site storage facilities, many collectors today are looking for other venues to which they can donate their works of art. One collector said to me recently that he wanted to make sure he found a place that would use his art as a “working asset” such that students could learn from first-hand contact with the real artworks and their related scholarship from his library. After all the time and money it takes to buy, conserve and appreciate fine works of art, many collectors do not want to leave it all to their children who might disperse the valuables at auction after their deaths. While the American Association of Museum Directors is looking at new guidelines for art sales that would allow museums to sell some things for new buildings or in the case of financial extremis, I am seeing that many universities are benefiting from major donations by their graduates who find gifting to their alma maters a special honor and privilege. While they are by no means the only ones in this game, I thought a look at the museums in the Ivy League would be one way to investigate this practice.
Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.
Alphabetically, we will begin with Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island which hosts a campus for 8,848 students at present. Their cultural assets began in 1955 with a gift of 60,000 items from native cultures of the Americas by Rudolf Haffenreffer. Since then they have added 150,000 ethnographic objects to the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology and agreed to house 850,000 more for the National Park Service from Alaska. Items such as this Lithic Knife found in Chester City, Tennessee is just one example of the breadth and depth of this collection.
Columbia University, New York, New York.
By contrast, Columbia University in New York City has created a center for the arts which hosts exhibitions and performances instead of a major art collection. It is the newly constructed Wallach Art Gallery in the Lenfest Center for the Arts, located on 129th street, north of the main campus. The current 32,429 students in the Columbia family all know one famous work of art on the steps of the main Low Library called “Alma Mater.” Dedicated in 1903 it stands eight feet high in bronze with a scepter of wheat in one hand and a crown of gold on her head. Daniel Chester French added a small owl in the folds of her skirt which people love to search for as an eternal symbol of wisdom on campus.
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.
Cornell University, located in Ithaca, New York, has 21,904 students who enjoy and engage in the study of art at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art designed by I. M. Pei to overlook the shores of Lake Cayuga. Built in 1973, the museum houses 35,000 objects and covers many fields of art and design including major artworks such as this one by Albert Bierstadt. Alumnae who join their Museum Associates buy works of art for the university each year.
Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.
At the beginning of 2019, Dartmouth College opened a new addition to the Hood Museum of Art, designed by contemporary architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. 6,350 students can enjoy works of art that begin with animal bones donated in 1772 as the first gift to the College when Eleazar Wheelock founded the school to educate Native Americans. Dartmouth has amassed 65,000 works of art in many fields ranging from ancient to modern. Thanks to the acceptance of Nelson Rockefeller who attended the College from 1926 to 1930, there are major murals in the Baker Library completed in 1934 by Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco through a Rockefeller grant to the visiting artist’s fund. Students on campus mixed his colors and watched him paint for two years before he completed the murals which are now considered a Historic Preservation Landmark.
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Harvard University has a student body at this time of 22,947 who have access to the new museum opened in 2018 when architect Renzo Piano united the three pieces of the art community under one glass roof. The Fogg, Busch-Reisinger and Sackler Galleries house 250,000 works of art from ancient to modern disciplines. Conservation laboratories and study rooms in the museum offer major opportunities for both undergraduates and senior scholars to engage with the original works of art. One of my favorites is by the famous photographer, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) of the canals of Venice.
Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey.
Princeton University Art Museum services a campus of 8,623 students with a museum collection of approximately 100,000 works. Since its beginning in 1882, the interactive teaching in the museum has grown such that many undergraduate disciplines hold classes in the study rooms, ranging from Romance languages to sociology, anthropology and even biological sciences. Students are asked to analyze a work just as if they were dissecting a specimen. As a result the trustees have decided this year to engage the architectural firm of David Adjaye to build a totally new museum on its central campus site starting in 2020. Many of the works in the collection will go on loan to other institutions, and the art classes and library will be relocated to other parts of the campus in the interim. Princeton also hosts a large outdoor art collection on campus which is owned and conserved by the Art Museum. The students refer to this work of art by British artist Henri Moore as their “dunkin’ donut.”
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The U Penn campus, educating 24,000 students, hosts three spaces dedicated to the arts. Its Institute for Contemporary Art or the ICA is a 27,000 square foot space for temporary exhibitions of visiting art. The Ross Gallery is a small central campus space where Penn hosts temporary shows curated by a full-time specialist and undergraduate students studying art history. Since 1899 Penn has also had an archaeological museum which now houses 1.3 million objects acquired by both gift and excavation permits through its faculty. Recent renovations have brought in the latest in digital technology such that Penn students can do detailed investigations of ancient mummies and related burial goods in an on- site laboratory in the museum. From every ancient culture in the world, Penn has some of the finest treasures such as this Chinese tomb sculpture from the Emperor of the Tang Dynasty, near Xian made in 621 BCE.
Yale University, New Haven , Connecticut.
Yale University began its art collections in 1832 when John Trumbull, a colonial artist, gave 100 pictures as a gift. Today the collection numbers about 250,000 items available to the campus of 12,385 students. Stellar faculty members address classes for both undergraduate programs as well as Ph.D. degrees. The current director of the museum, Stephanie Wiles, oversees the collection which includes some super star works such as the Piet Mondrian of 1929 and the Van Gogh of 1888.
Additionally, Yale has the Peabody Museum of Natural History which houses ten collections of specimens for study of the earth sciences and its many species on campus. Another gift of one alum, Paul Mellon, created a center for the study of British Art with his library, 2,000 paintings, 250 sculptures, and 20,000 drawings. The Yale Center for British Art is but one example of how a graduate can honor his or her institution with a gift that will endure for generations to come.
In conclusion, this brief examination of how eight institutions of higher learning have grown and adopted numerous works of art and archaeology is a testament to the idea that academic art museums can play a major role in the art world today in terms of conservation, utilization, and growth of the undergraduate and graduate faculties of these institutions. Making gifts of art a working asset for both the donor and the museum is an attractive option which the Internal Revenue Service condones, and the general public acknowledges as worthy charitable behavior in the past and present. Students and visitors to these university museums reap the best of kind: artistic exposure and academic instruction as to the intrinsic value of creativity and cultures from all over the globe.