Athenæum supports undergraduate art exploration

Members of the Elihu Athenæum will install Sol Lewitt’s “Wall Drawing No. 587” in the Morse and Stiles Underground Crescent.
Members of the Elihu Athenæum will install Sol Lewitt’s “Wall Drawing No. 587” in the Morse and Stiles Underground Crescent. Photo by Thomas Burns.

As student guides gear up for another semester of tours, a new undergraduate art interest group called The Elihu Athenæum is attempting to carve a space for itself alongside the established programs run by the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art.

Formed a year ago, The Elihu Athenæum brands itself as “a society of Yale undergraduate art historians.” Founder Thomas Burns ’13 said he created the club due to his dissatisfaction with the available avenues for undergraduates to pursue their interest in art history and engage with the University’s museums. After transferring from Northeastern University in 2010, Burns said it was difficult to find a sense of central community within Yale’s Art History Department. The two pre-existing art history groups — the YUAG guides and the YCBA guides — allow for only a limited number of students to participate, he said, and they do not fulfill the needs of all the students in the major.

“The Art History Department is very fractioned,” Burns said. “There was no universal place for everyone.”

The Elihu Athenæum elected its new board this January. Current President Sinclaire Marber ’15, who is also a YUAG guide, said she hopes to expand the club’s membership and organize regular events geared toward helping undergraduates take advantage of the University’s galleries. The club sends out a monthly newsletter to its panlist detailing upcoming events hosted by the two University museums, as well as club-organized movie screenings and local gallery trips. Last fall, The Elihu Athenæum members visited Exit Art, a nonprofit cultural center in New York City, shortly before its scheduled closure.

“In addition to planning our own activities, the group is about helping students take advantage of the existing opportunities around them,” Marber said. “It’s a platform through which to inform people about events and have a group of people to go to these events with.”

Marber said about 10 to 15 people attend each event. Meanwhile, meetings are open to everyone on the panlist and do not demand a set commitment from members. Josh Isackson ’15, the club’s treasurer, said he came to The Elihu Athenæum hoping to learn about art in a more informal setting.

The group’s casual nature and broad artistic scope set it apart from the more formalized tour guide groups, Marber said. She added that the YUAG’s guide programs are “very targeted towards learning how to give a tour,” and the guide programs at both galleries require participants to attend weekly meetings.

Burns said he also hopes The Elihu Athenæum will enliven spaces around campus that are currently devoid of art. The group is collaborating with YUAG Director Jock Reynolds to install Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing No. 587” in the basement that Ezra Stiles College and Morse College share.

“I generally hate white walls,” Burns said. “I hope that through outside funding, we can start a program which utilizes temporary installations of art from renowned artists to be displayed outside of gallery walls.”

The benefit of student-led installations is that members receive firsthand exposure to working in the art world, Burns explained. The Elihu Athenæum’s projects will give students an understanding of the hurdles that public arts commissions, museums and nonprofit organizations must overcome to acquire or display art.

Burns cited the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory as an example of an on-campus space that has been neglected.

“No part of Yale should ever look like a sad office building,” Burns lamented.

Art history professor Edward Cooke commended The Elihu Athenæum for providing a more accessible and collaborative way for students to engage deeply with the galleries’ collections.

“Not everyone wants to do the gallery guides prep work or to be involved in the kind of competition involved in becoming a guide,” Cooke said. “There are some people who just want a relationship with the gallery that is on their own terms.”

The Elihu Athenæum will travel to New York City on Feb. 17 to see exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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