At 2:08 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, class is in session. Huddled together, eight students circle around a small Elizabeth Catlett painting. Talk turns to brushwork and background before professor Key Jo Lee interrupts to reference “Parks and Recreation.” Laughter echoes along the room’s blinding white walls. A far cry from the familiar woodwork of WLH, this class has no desks, no blackboard and no chalk. Above Curly Raven Hotlon’s “Bred for Pleasure,” gently lit white letters announce the location: “Jane and Richard Levin Study Gallery.”
Located on the top floor of the Yale University Art Gallery, the Levin Gallery opened as part of the museum’s 14-year renovation project, which finished in December and cost $135 million in total. The gallery, a single room, is a microcosm of the museum’s breadth: a grab bag of ancient Indian coins, graphic prints of Vietnam and religious panels.
As a teaching tool for Yale professors, the space showcases pieces related to specific University courses. During the Wednesday afternoon sessions, the gallery plays host to “Re-Visioning Subjectivities: Art, Literature, and Black Womanhood,” an American and African-American Studies class taught by Lee and professor Hazel Carby.
But efforts to expand the museum’s educational offerings have not stopped with the Levin Gallery. The Nolen Center for Art and Education, also built during the renovation, includes two object study galleries and a library open to the public. The Mimi Gates study gallery, on the first floor, houses a bourgeoning collection of Islamic art.
Since its conception, the YUAG has enjoyed a close relationship with the University’s academic programs. Deputy Director for Collections and Education Pamela Franks estimated that 48 courses visited the museum in the 2011-’12 academic year, excluding those in the History of Art Department. Including art courses, the gallery hosted 578 individual class sessions that same year.
The physical might of the renovation effort, which linked the museum’s Kahn, Street and Swartwout buildings along High Street, mirrors an effort to diversify the breadth of the YUAG’s collection. Along with the growth in capacity comes a more involved relationship with the University and New Haven communities.
But students and professors are still struggling to define the YUAG’s new place in the Yale community.
The academic advantages of the YUAG are central to Yale’s Art History Department. History of Art professor Robert Nelson described the museum experience as irreplaceable in understanding the scale, coloring, materiality and general condition of art.
“[The museum experience] always changes the class dynamic,” Nelson said. “It’s always liberating — like we’re going on a field trip every single day.”
This semester, Nelson is teaching “Critical Approaches to Art History,” a seminar constructed around the YUAG’s offerings. Each week, he introduces a broad “academic” theme that students consider in the context of a particular work of art from the museum — “a sort of serendipity,” Nelson said.
Professor J.D. Connor, former director of undergraduate studies for History of Art and current Film Studies director for undergraduate studies, said he considers that serendipity one of the museum’s highlights.
“For me, the gallery serves as both a place I can go to find things to teach, but also as a source of inspiration,” Connor said.
Using the YUAG’s upcoming exhibits, Connor developed a class for next semester based on Gary Winograd’s photographs of the Democratic National Convention of 1960.
Professor Youn-mi Kim, who began teaching at Yale this year, said she has drawn inspiration from the gallery for her spring semester course, “Chinese Landscape Painting.” Kim noted the close relationship she has fostered with the museum’s curators, adding, “Whenever I can use the collection, I will.”
Kim said that while every collection has its weaknesses, any holes in the YUAG’s can easily be supplemented by nearby museums in Boston and New York.
But students debate whether professors should base their courses on the gallery’s collections or merely use the museum as a teaching supplement. Stephanie Wisowaty ’16, a gallery guide at the YUAG, came to Yale because of its “incredible art galleries.” As a gallery guide, she has familiarized herself with the YUAG extensively. Still, she said she chose not to major in History of Art because she feels the department’s teaching style does not use the YUAG’s resources to their fullest, instead relying on them as a complement to their individual course topics.
“Teachers teach based on what they’re experts in, which makes sense,” Wisowaty said. But given the breadth of the gallery, “it’s a shame,” she added.
Elena Light ’13, an art history major and gallery guide, defended the department’s educational model. She said the department uses the gallery “to the best of [its] ability,” adding that “every professor has made a point to use the gallery, even if it isn’t the most ‘relevant.’” She also noted that with the renovation, the gallery is large enough that professors can choose from a wide range of pieces to incorporate the museum into their courses.
History of Art major Cristina Vere Nicoll ’15 said the department strikes a balance in its use of the YUAG’s resources.
“You can always do more — every lecture could be in front of a painting, but maybe that’s not conducive to learning,” Vere Nicoll said. “There’s definitely something to be said for taking a more academic standpoint.”
A UNIVERSAL TOOL
But art history is not the only focus of the YUAG’s teaching mission, said David Odo, the assistant curator of academic affairs. Vanessa Lamers FES ’13, who creates lesson plans based on the YUAG’s collections according to her discipline as a Gallery Teacher, said art is valuable for all disciplines.
“In literature, you analyze an original source. [When] you come to the gallery, you analyze another original source, an original story,” Lamers said.
Professor Stephen Davis, the director of undergraduate studies for Religious Studies, said he considers art to be an irreplaceable academic resource.
“An exclusive focus on text forgets what motivates the historical imagination,” Davis said. “Visuality, seeing how spaces worked, is crucial for developing a multimedia sensibility.”
In the fall, Davis taught a lecture course on the history of Christianity and used the YUAG’s Dura Europos exhibit, which displays finds from early 20th century excavations in Syria. He plans to develop a course on early Christian archeology that would use the Dura Europos exhibit more heavily.
Traditionally, the YUAG’s teaching influence has extended throughout Yale’s humanities departments. And since the renovation, Odo explained, the museum is working to foster closer relationships with STEM programs by featuring art related to the human form and inspired by science and medicine, in addition to partnering with science-related organizations like the Public Health Coalition.
“We’re ramping up our collaborations in terms of really thinking together with scientists about how our work can be mutually beneficial,” Odo told the News earlier this month.
Given Lamers’ science background in the School of Forestry, she has advocated for more direct overlap between art and science. She pointed to the Renaissance as a time when art and science were especially interconnected, adding that the YUAG is trying to recapture that interaction.
The YUAG’s pursuit of a more multi-disciplinary role underlies a deeper question about the museum’s place within the University. Davis said he sees the gallery as part of the larger network of Yale’s museums, a place for academic intersection rather than isolation. Light compared the gallery to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, a resource with enough breadth that most classes are able to use it in some way.
Given the museum and University’s shared goals of teaching and learning, Odo calls the gallery’s interaction with Yale “a wonderfully symbiotic relationship.”