Bringing famous art to Yalies and the community

Working for the Yale University Art Gallery last year, Noah Chesnin ’04 didn’t see any students around. But then again, as a student duster of the Garvan furniture collection, Chesnin spent his time maneuvering around aisles of antiques in a basement. Anywhere else in the museum, he would have seen hundreds every week.

Arts are a noisy, exciting part of the Yale experience — a cappella groups are a core part of the social life, and usually a half-dozen new theater productions go up every weekend. But there is a quieter side to art at Yale as well: its galleries. The Yale University Art Gallery and British Art Center have collections and facilities of international importance.

The Yale University Art Gallery, the first university art gallery in the country, has a collection of over 80,000 objects ranging from Etruscan to contemporary American art. Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock are among the famous names whose work graces the museum’s recently reinstalled galleries.

The British Art Center owes its existence primarily to the generosity of one Yale alumnus, philanthropist Paul Mellon ’29. The BAC houses nearly all of the large, top-quality collection that Mellon and his family had accumulated over decades of collecting and is commonly known as the best collection of British art outside the United Kingdom.

Among the gallery’s collections are a group of Romantic landscapes of the 19th century, including works by J. M. W. Turner and John Constable, and 27 outstanding works by the animal painter George Stubbs. Even for the less-than-artistically inclined, the BAC is a beautiful place for a date or a solitary wander because the naturally-lit, off-white interior, with balconies overlooking two courtyards, is a haven of serenity and peace in New Haven.

But with all of these attractions, do students actually take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the galleries?

Among freshman, at least, it seems not. Despite the proximity of the galleries to Old Campus — they’re about 25 feet apart — it seems that surprisingly few students make it to the galleries during the first year.

“It’s just not high on my priority list,” Jonas Rodriguez ’04 said.

But some said it wasn’t for lack of interest that they hadn’t stopped by.

“I really want to, and keep meaning to, but there’s lots of stuff going on. It’s on my list of things to do that haven’t happened yet,” Molly Lewis ’04 explained.

Even Chesnin, who makes the “trek” to YUAG five times a week for his job, agreed.

“I don’t think a lot of students do go,” Chesnin said.

But those who do said the experience is worth it.

“When I have gone, I’ve been amazed by how much of it is really beautiful and how many paintings I recognized, even though I’m not all that artistically literate,” Timothy Kleiman ’04 said.

One way that the YUAG is trying to lure in more visitors like Kleiman is through the Gallery Guides program. A group of students — usually sophomores and juniors — receive intense training for about four hours per week through the fall semester. They go on tours led by curators, professors, conservators and artists, and then work on giving their own. The program currently counts 26 active guides, said coordinator Geoffrey Shamos ’02, of whom he estimated about a third are art history majors.

“It’s very neat in that it gives those people a real look into what goes on in a museum, and their excitement can be translated to others around the Yale community,” Shamos said.

George Bernard said the efforts are working — if not among freshman then among students as a whole. Bernard, a Yale employee for 20 years and a museum guard at YUAG for 10, believes the art museums of Yale are in the middle of a renaissance sparked by “grass-roots” action by students like Shamos.

“There are three or four times as many guides as there used to be, and the Education Department is excellent — between them, they’ve done a lot for the gallery,” Bernard said. “Every few months, there are thousands more visitors. Every day, there are students we’ve never seen before — and they all love it.”

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