Princeton Arts Profiles

Engaging with Art

And it is the stories of impact on our students and our faculty, past and present, that most move me.

stewardOur engagement with great works of art at Princeton is special. We are among the oldest collecting institutions in English-speaking North America, having welcomed the first work of art into our holdings in 1755. We participated in the earliest wave of museum-making in the 18th century, when collections of fine art, antiquities, botany, natural history, and more were assembled in the spirit of the Enlightenment. We made an early exhibit space in the 19th century for that museum in the Faculty Room in Nassau Hall, placing art in what has been termed the “inner sanctum.” And when that proved to be inadequate, we established the precursor to the present Princeton University Art Museum in the form of a Museum of Historic Art in 1882, cofounded with what is now the Department of Art and Archaeology as a cutting-edge disciplinary commingling that was then just making its way to the United States from Germany.

The modern-day museum that has arisen from this history is not the largest academic collection in the United States, but it can lay claim to being the most comprehensive under one roof. To that breadth we can add depth, with unique strengths in fields such as the art of the ancient Americas, early Chinese painting, and photography from its origins in 1839 to the present. Throughout are to be found masterpieces of unsurpassed quality and canonical import, and which are often happily much beloved—works ranging from the masterwork of Maya vase painting known simply as the Princeton Vase, to a masterwork of Renaissance gold-ground painting by Fra Angelico, to Willem de Kooning’s Black Friday and Andy Warhol’s Blue Marilyn. Now encompassing some 92,000 works of art, the museum we have become could not have been imagined in 1755.

These collections afford us a remarkable set of tools with which to consider questions from the aesthetic to the humanistic and beyond. In their quality and scope, they afford us the potential to impact the lives of our students in profound and sometimes unexpected ways—awakening curiosity, inciting wonder, providing solace, provoking connections, and even deepening citizenship. And it is the stories of impact on our students and our faculty, past and present, that most move me. An alumnus from the 1960s who tells me that making a museum exhibition in lieu of a standard undergraduate thesis was a life-changing event. A student from the present decade who makes the career-altering shift from engineering to art history and museology when compelled by deep encounters with original works of art in our galleries. A faculty member who reveals that he came to Princeton to teach and conduct research specifically because of the opportunities framed by our museum and the intimate relationship that endures between museum and department.

Happily for me, the pendulum of art history has swung back toward the original work of art, without forsaking theory, and we are riding a wave of enthusiasm for “the thing itself ” in this digital age. Somewhat unexpectedly, with increased knowledge of what art collections exist on the Princeton campus has come a dramatic surge of increased demand for access to works of art in the original, whether in our galleries or our study classrooms. Our historic commitment to service coupled with the unique capacities of works of art to speak globally, awaken empathy, and open windows into difference, in a context that has long been uniquely intimate among the great universities, makes practicing the arts at Princeton very special indeed.