A teaching museum for all

A teaching museum for all
Photo by Yale Daily News.

This is Part 2 of a two-part series exploring the development of the Yale University Art Gallery — which will officially reopen to the public on Dec. 12 — over its 14-year renovation process. Part 1 investigates how the gallery’s architecture and collections pay tribute to the YUAG of old while considering its changing place in the art world. Part 2 examines how the YUAG has grown into its role as a teaching museum. 

Awe and excitement hung in the air on the evening of Dec. 4 at a preview party for the renovated Yale University Art Gallery, where student employees of the YUAG and the Yale Center for British Art gathered to get a glimpse of the new spaces. Beneath architect Louis Kahn’s trademark tetrahedron-patterned ceiling, students talked animatedly to one another about the gallery’s extensive collections and the comfort they felt within its walls.

“It’s so beautiful,” said Adrian Chiem ’15, who attended Tuesday’s event. “I can see myself hiding in a corner and studying in this place all day.”

When the YUAG officially reopens today at noon, it will mark the debut of a reorganized and extensive art collection spanning ancient art to contemporary works, alongside a newly strengthened educational model for teaching through art. In 2006, the YUAG changed its mission statement to reflect an equal emphasis on collecting and educational programming. Through efforts within and beyond the Yale community, the gallery aims to function as a “teaching museum” that embraces all audiences, said Deputy Director for Collections and Education Pamela Franks, who joined the gallery’s staff in 2004.

YUAG Director Jock Reynolds said the gallery aims to give students a reprieve from the whirlwind pace of their everyday lives, offering them a place to “look and linger” free of charge. He added that constant exposure to the YUAG’s collections will allow students to develop a natural affinity towards art.

“Yale students have spent a lifetime trying to excel academically, but they never took an SAT on visual intelligence,” Reynolds said. “I ask students who come in here, ‘Did anyone ever test you on how to see?’”

 

GALLERIES FOR STUDY 

Sinclaire Marber ’15 has wanted to be a gallery guide since high school, when she interned for New York City’s Frick Collection art museum. There, she was mentored by a Yale undergraduate who was a member of the YUAG guide program, which trains a group of about 13 students to give personalized tours of the gallery.

As Marber prepares to lead tours around the renovated museum, she has begun to notice how the YUAG’s teaching resources have expanded in the last 14 years.

“The sheer amount of space and resources devoted solely to study areas is a testament to the gallery’s relationship with the University and teaching in general,” Marber said.

Along with the guide program, the YUAG’s expanded spaces make it easier for faculty members to incorporate the study of its collections into coursework. On the top floor of the restored Street Hall — which composes the renovated gallery along with the Old Yale Art Gallery and the Kahn building — visitors will now find the Jane and Richard Levin Study Gallery, constructed to facilitate the viewing of art related to specific courses. Prior to today’s opening, museum staff had already invited faculty from all departments to request works to be displayed for the coming spring, allowing students to view the pieces at any time during the semester. The gallery now houses art for classes as diverse as women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Laura Wexler’s “Photography and Memory” course and African American studies professor Hazel Carby’s class on “Re-Visioning Subjectivities.”

In the past, the History of Art Department has scheduled all of its sections in the gallery, but the expansion’s added space will give more diverse departments such as Biology and Religious Studies the opportunity to bring their sections to the gallery as well.

University Provost and President-elect Peter Salovey recalled that as a psychology professor, he used to take his classes to view representations of mental illness in art.

“I hoped to help them develop interest in art by infusing it with what they were learning,” Salovey said.

Students can also integrate their extracurricular activities with the YUAG through the “Gallery +” series. Recently, the “Gallery + Dance” segment hosted 10 undergraduate and graduate Yale dancers for a performance in the main lobby. The dance, which included both structured and improvised components, was a response to four artworks displayed in the gallery, including two Sol LeWitt Wall Drawings.

Organizer Elena Light ’13 told the News in October that the event intended to demonstrate the physical element of viewing art.

“What about our bodies?” Light said. “We are people looking at works of visual art, and when I approach a work of art it’s not like suddenly my body is not there and it’s just my mind.”

 

ART IN THE ELM CITY 

In partnership with New Haven-area K-12 schools such as the Cooperative Arts High School and James Hillhouse High School, the Wurtele Gallery Teachers program was founded in 2005 and trains graduate students from a variety of disciplines to create lesson plans based on the gallery’s collections. During one of his weekly lessons for New Haven elementary school students who visit the YUAG, Wurtele Gallery Teacher Tyler Griffith GRD ’15 led a class of 8-year-olds through the Modern and Contemporary Art sections.

When they passed a painting by German artist Anselm Kiefer titled “The Unborn” that depicts children’s clothing hanging off the branches of barren trees, Griffith was struck by the truth of one student’s reaction.

“The stuff that kids say is sometimes shocking,” Griffith said. “This boy looked at me and whispered, ‘What a somber picture.’”

Associate Curator of Education Jessica Sack explained that the goal of the Wurtele program is to nurture love for the YUAG’s collections early on in children’s lives. In collaboration with the YUAG, the New Haven School District has worked to ensure that every third-grader has visited the YUAG or the YCBA at least once.

Coinciding with the gallery’s reopening is the debut of the Nolen Center for Art and Education, a facility in the lower level of Street Hall that houses classrooms, a library and work spaces for students, faculty and members of the public. The center offers YUAG visitors the resources to further analyze and reflect upon the pieces they have seen by providing books and other materials relevant to the collection. Nolen Curator of Education and Academic Affairs Kate Ezra said she hopes the facility will be used by local schools to connect more deeply with the artwork on display.

Classics professor Andrew Johnston, who brought sections of his “Roman Republic” class to the gallery’s Coins and Metals department, said there is no textbook equivalent to seeing an ancient artifact face to face.

“In the gallery you can see the brushstrokes, the materiality of the work,” said Emma Stein GRD ’16, who taught a section of Alexander Nemerov’s “Introduction to Art History” course last spring. “The students find that the actual experience of being able to feel the scale of the work, to walk around the sculptures, is incomparable.”

The elementary school students who participate in the Wurtele program share this feeling of awareness.

“The kids come in awestruck and a little intimidated by the grandeur of the space,” Wurtele Gallery Teacher Erin Thomas GRD ’14 said. “But through the course of the lesson, you can see a physical change in their comfort level. After the visit, they really see it as their museum.”

 

OPEN ACCESS

For those unable to travel to New Haven and see the gallery in person, the YUAG is working to expand its digital collections to reflect the size of its current holdings. Even with the new spaces, the YUAG is only able to display just over 4,000 pieces of its 200,000-work collection. But with the technical staff working to launch a redesigned online platform this coming February, visitors to the site will be able to view images of the gallery’s holdings in their entirety.

“The underlying goal of the gallery is to make art broadly accessible,” Director of Visual Resources John ffrench said.

ffrench noted that due to Yale’s open access policy, digital representations of works in the public domain are waived from copyright law, making them available for download by all members of the public. He added that the magnitude of the YUAG’s online collection creates avenues for research collaboration with external agencies such as ARTstor, a digital image resource.

YUAG Chief Curator Laurence Kanter said that despite the increased cost of maintaining the renovated gallery, the museum remains committed to keeping entrance free to the public. He noted that thanks to generous contributions from donors over the past 14 years, the gallery has more than 20 staff positions endowed for perpetuity.

“The art wasn’t given to us so we could make money with it,” Reynolds said.

Salovey pointed out that the absence of an entrance fee affords visitors the chance to “get lost in art,” an endeavor which he called one of life’s greatest pleasures. Djenab Conde ’15, who toured the new spaces during the community preview on Thursday, agreed that without an entrance fee to hinder potential visitors, the YUAG truly fulfills the role of a public museum.

“The best part is that it’s free,” she remarked. “It’s really an amazing opportunity for people who don’t have access to museums where they come from.”

“I’m definitely going to go back,” she added, “And I’m going to encourage people who have never gone to tag along.”

 

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