When the Yale University Art Gallery opened in 1832, the Greek-revival building housed about 100 paintings.
One hundred and seventy five years later, the gallery holds more than 185,000 precious objects, among them ancient coins, colonial American bookcases and Impressionist masterpieces. The original Trumbull “pinacotheca,” or gallery, is gone, and the museum now takes up an entire block of Chapel Street.
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By 2011, it will expand across High Street and into a third building — Street Hall. But before this next phase of construction begins, the curators have taken a moment to explore the gallery’s most recent acquisitions, collected over the past decade.
“Art for Yale: Collecting for a New Century,” which opened Sept. 17, features over 300 works of art selected from the nearly 16,000 acquired since 1998. In the past nine years, the gallery’s collections have been transformed through donors’ gifts of art and the creation of 18 new funds for acquisitions, said Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery and a curator of the exhibition.
“It has been the most fertile decade of collection-building in a century,” Reynolds said. “It represents a period of intense collecting and ongoing stewardship.”
Over the past 10 years, the gallery’s photo collection has grown dramatically, he said. And thanks to a major donation from Charles B. Benenson, Yale now has one of the most important collections of African art in the U.S., Reynolds said.
Major gifts such as Benenson’s inspire other donors to give art to the gallery, said Susan Matheson, the gallery’s chief curator and co-curator of the Art for Yale exhibition.
“Things like that, which have high visibility in the art world and among the collectors, will inspire people to think of Yale as a place where they might give works of art in their own collections,” she said.
The gallery began a quiet art drive in 1998, when Paul Mellon ’29 visited Yale for the last time before he died. There he met Reynolds, the then new director of the gallery, and spoke with him about enhancing the gallery’s collections. A week later, Mellon, who founded and endowed the Yale Center for British Art, along with numerous other programs and buildings at Yale, sent the gallery a Thomas Eakins watercolor — “John Biglin in a Single Scull” — the art drive’s first gift.
The watercolor is a study of a famous oil painting of the same scene, which the gallery acquired in 1897. Mellon’s gift was in line with the gallery’s broader collecting goals, Reynolds said.
“Mr. Mellon was clearly thinking of a way of doing something that would add strength … [and] meaning to what we had,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds and other administrators said the gallery has long been committed to acquiring not simply major works but those that show his development over the course of his career.
Deputy Director for Education Anna Hammond said the historical accounts are valuable for students, particularly those of art and art history.
Matheson said she too thinks the gallery’s focus on understanding an artist’s life is important for putting his or her work in context.
“Time and again, the faculty in the Art School as well as the students come here for inspiration, they come here to learn about process, and they come here to see how one uses artistic sources and interprets them,” Matheson said.
This focus on teaching is not new for the gallery, she said. In the 19th century, the gallery spent a great deal of its budget on acquiring plaster casts for art students to study. Copies of famous sculptures such as the Laocoon, one of the masterpieces of ancient sculpture, crowded the hallways and staircases in Street Hall when it was built as Yale’s School of the Fine Arts.
Although most of the plaster casts are long gone, donors said Yale’s educational focus — now evident in its original works of art — is a key factor in donors’ decisions to leave works of art to the gallery.
Gilbert Kinney ’53, an 18-year member of the gallery’s governing board, said that Reynolds, an artist himself, has put a great emphasis on education during his tenure as director. He said he cannot remember going to the gallery when he was a student at Yale, but he is excited by the number of undergraduates who now visit the art gallery on a regular basis.
Even though most members of the governing board serve on the boards of other museums, he and other donors said many alumni have a fierce loyalty to Yale, an attachment which may lead them to leave their collections to the gallery.
Jeffrey Loria ’62, an art dealer and the owner of the Florida Marlins, said he and other alumni are dedicated to upholding the gallery’s stature as a major museum.
“The gallery’s been successful because it’s probably the most important university art gallery in the country and it’s run extremely well, starting with the president and the director,” Loria said.
Loria said he has donated works “too numerous to think about” since he graduated from Yale College. He recently made a major gift to fund the creation of a new building on York Street to house the History of Art Department. Designed by Charles Gwathmey ’62, the building will open next fall.
He and other donors said Reynolds’ development expertise has been instrumental in building the gallery’s collections.
“Jock Reynolds is an outstanding fundraiser, and he’s set up an amazingly attractive institution for people to give,” said Eliot Nolen ’84, a member of the gallery’s governing board. “Not only is the art going to be well taken care of, but it’s going to be well-curated, and there’s a very good chance that students are going to interact with it.”
Along with five members of her family, Nolen recently promised $20 million to the gallery to fund the creation of a new educational center in the renovated Street Hall.
“Art for Yale” will be on view through Jan. 13.