The Renaissance President

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Looking up at the Yale University Art Gallery, it’s hard to tell the campus skyline has changed.

But when its renovations are formally unveiled this December, an additional floor will open at the top of the building. The new fourth-floor mezzanine will house the Jane and Richard C. Levin Teaching Gallery, a space for rotating exhibitions associated with specific Yale courses.

The new study space will figuratively and literally crown the renovated art museum, capping off over a decade of refurbishments and escalating expectations. And it will stand as a monument to the Levins’ enduring arts legacy at Yale. It seems fitting that the teaching gallery will open this winter, just a few short months before University President Richard Levin steps down from his post at the end of this academic year.

Levin has come a long way. At his inauguration in 1993, a fresh-faced Levin inherited a Yale in tatters — a University that had neglected its public image and a community sharply isolated from its surrounding city. He intended to salvage the University, and his inaugural address laid out a sort of master plan. He set out to bolster town-gown relations, to invest in the sciences, to internationalize Yale.

He spent the first half of his tenure laying the foundation for those changes, patching up relationships with the city and kickstarting the University’s global outreach. Only in the second half did the administration begin to implement projects like the renovation of the Yale University Art Gallery — the dawn of a more noticeable focus on strengthening the University’s arts programs and facilities. Despite this new approach, he will leave some projects unfulfilled, failing to find and fund a new home for the School of Drama and to renovate Yale Music School’s Hendrie Hall.

Although the fine arts were not first among Levin’s stated priorities when he took office, he leaves behind a Yale still very much on top of the arts.

“I’d like the next president to show at the very least the extent of support that Rick Levin has shown for the arts,” School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern said. “The arts are our big signature.”

RICK AND JANE: A COSMOPOLITAN COUPLE

“Like Cézanne and Pissarro you’ve come as strangers to a new place. Like them, you will become passionate about what you do here. You will work hard. I hope that, like Cézanne and Pissarro, you will aspire to change the world.”

These were the words of President Levin during his freshman address to the class of 2009. The speech conveyed a sense of artistic insight and intellectual curiosity not unlike that of a young student. He directed the freshmen to consider four paintings reproduced in a handout, and proceeded to draw parallels between the lives of painters and the first year of college.

“I was warmly astonished,” said Robert Thompson ’55 GRD ’65, a history of art professor and former master of Timothy Dwight College. “Never in my institutional memory of some 30-odd years had such a topic passed the lips of a president.”

Levin’s speech was inspired by his recent trip to see an impressionist exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And, as is often the case, his wife Jane was with him.

Given how the couple first met, it is not surprising that the art exposition resonated with them. They were both undergraduates at Stanford University in the 1960s — an era, she says, that marked their mutual love for rock music (they’ve attended the Allman Brothers Band’s annual concert at the Beacon Theatre for over a decade). After being in the same English section their freshman year without really knowing one another, they spent a semester abroad in Italy as sophomores. There, they immersed themselves in the world of medieval and Renaissance Italian art.

“We basically got married two weeks after we graduated in 1968,” she said with a smile. It has been a union of a strong love for Yale, the outdoors — and the arts. Once married, the couple spent two years studying at Oxford University, where they would often go out together to concerts.

“We went to Covent Garden many times to hear the opera in the cheapest student seats,” she said. “You could practically touch the ceiling.”

Although her husband is an economist by profession, Jane said he enjoys Baroque music, Mozart and contemporary musicians. He was especially thrilled when Yale awarded an honorary degree to Paul McCartney in 2008 and Aretha Franklin in 2010.

They both frequent concerts at the music school, and art gallery director Jock Reynolds said Levin has attended almost every one of the gallery’s meetings with its board of trustees and benefactors. Jane said they even try to make it to each year’s Yale Symphony Orchestra Halloween Show, although for the past few years they have been unable to go. “It’s been past our bedtime,” she said.

As School of Music Dean Robert Blocker described it, Rick and Jane are the ideal presidential couple: visionary, approachable, cultured.

“They can talk with you about a Mozart opera or a piece of popular music,” Blocker said. “I have never been to a reception at the President’s House on Hillhouse Avenue without a string quartet or musical accompaniment.”

Indeed, the ceremonial President’s House acts almost like a branch of the art gallery itself. Throughout the years, the Levins have borrowed paintings and furniture not on display at the art gallery or Yale Center for British Art Center for use within the house. This decision, President Levin said, has created yet another opportunity to show off Yale’s art collection to a wider audience. From Renoir to Liechtenstein, their art selection is the largest outside of the galleries. A brochure, not unlike in a museum, helps the public identify the works around the house.

Pamela Franks, the art gallery’s deputy director for collections and education, said that Jane has been instrumental in making Yale’s collection more visible to students.

As the head of Directed Studies, the yearlong freshman program devoted to the Western canon, Jane Levin brings students to both galleries every semester to complement their coursework. (After students read the “Odyssey,” she takes them to look at Greek vases; the next semester, Wordsworth calls for the paintings of John Constable.)

The rich art holdings at Yale were one of the many ruminations in the back of Levin’s mind when he first stepped into Woodbridge Hall, en route to attend a campus in crisis.

REVIVING THE ARTS AREA COMPLEX

Not much could be said about Yale’s arts facilities at the start of Levin’s presidency.

In fact, when Blocker became the dean of the School of Music in 1995, he told Levin that the music school had some of the most run-down facilities of any music program nationally.

At that time, all of Yale’s professional arts schools and museums had outmoded buildings and were not fully collaborating with one another. Even the art gallery, with its gargantuan collection, faced space constraints and structural problems.

Yale College Dean Mary Miller, a history of art professor at the time, recalls Sprague Hall as the shabbiest of all buildings. The music library in the basement had sheet music and manuscripts stored in damp conditions.

“It was wood floors and hard wooden seats, like an old classroom in WLH,” she said. “It was not an ideal environment for being at a musical event.”

And then, a remedy. In November 2000, the University announced the Arts Area Plan, a $250 million donor-funded proposal to revamp the art facilities around Chapel Street. Overall, the administration renovated 500,000 square feet and added 275,000 more to the schools of architecture, art and drama, the two art galleries and various supporting departments like the Digital Media Center for the Arts.

The plan aimed to encourage more coordination among the arts at Yale and the surrounding New Haven community. More importantly, it re-energized the educational mission of Yale’s art resources.

“What has been distinctive about Levin’s presidency is his understanding of how all of the arts complement one another,” said Amy Meyers GRD ’85, director of the Yale Center for British Art. “Over my decade as director, Rick has encouraged the Center’s expanded vision of using our collections in research and teaching.”

The arts area proposal sought to optimize Yale’s spaces by shuffling departments and schools within the Chapel Street area — the art and drama schools now share facilities in Green Hall; the History of Art Department moved out of Street Hall to make space for the art gallery’s expansion.

The preliminary work for the Arts Area Plan began in 1995, Reynolds said, shortly before Levin recruited him to Yale three years later. The art gallery, along with the British Art Center, embraced the proposal’s pragmatic approach to arts education.

“The notion of the gallery renovation was not only to expand the space but to integrate it with students’ academic pursuits,” Reynolds explained. Before the arts plan, he added, the gallery’s collections were not as accessible to students.

Once it officially opens this December, the gallery will extend a block and a half across Chapel Street, allowing for continuous sequences of exhibition space. In addition to the teaching gallery, object-study classrooms and a study center will consolidate the gallery’s education efforts.

At the music school, Levin and Blocker have overhauled the school’s curricula and facilities, with the remaining exception of SS Hall. The school’s fundraising efforts climaxed in 2005, when Stephen Adams ’59 and Denise Adams gifted the school with $100 million to grant free tuition to all of its musicians. It was Yale’s largest donation to date.

“President Levin was the key in this situation,” said Inge Reichenbach, former vice president for development under Levin and the leader behind the Yale Tomorrow capital campaign. “He had a long standing relationship [with the Adamses], and he persuaded them to make this amazing gift.”

The art galleries have benefited from the same generosity. The Yale Center for British Art saw major renovations in 1996 and 1998, and Meyers said the Yale-in-London study abroad program has experienced healthy growth under Levin’s global vision. Since 1998, Reynolds explained, the Yale University Art Gallery has added around 20,000 pieces of art through acquisitions and patrons, and increased its endowment more than fivefold.

Through the arts plan, Levin did not only hope to enrich Yale’s resources but also make New Haven more attractive as a destination and a business oasis. Many administrative recruits, including Blocker and Meyers, say they came to Yale captivated by Levin’s vision of uplifting campus and New Haven through the arts.

“I think we’ve done a good job in that area. The number of people at the galleries and schools has increased dramatically,” Levin said. “In a lot of ways, they’ve been huge assets, not only contributing to Yale but also to the whole New Haven area.”

THE ARTS, ‘SHORTCHANGED’?

Levin’s drive to improve the arts at Yale was not without its setbacks. In December 2008, news broke that Yale’s endowment lost a quarter of its value, and Levin delivered the dramatic news that major construction projects would have to be put on hold.

As a result the art gallery expansion was stalled for a year. It eventually continued thanks to donations, including an $11 million gift at the end of last year — the cost of the entire project totaled $135 million.

All told, Levin acknowledged that the Arts Area Plan proved more expensive than originally intended.

In spite of these obstacles Levin’s architectural footprint will remain long after he steps down. While his initial aspirations centered on revamping neglected facilities, his projects and his ambition have scaled up over time. But even Levin acknowledges that this commitment can only go so far when faced with budgetary setbacks. When the financial crisis hit, the drama school had yet to be renovated.

As some administrators have indicated, both the School of Drama and the Yale Repertory Theatre still show room for improvement. Dramatists and thespians are still waiting for a larger campus of their own in part because the University has yet to find a lead donor for the drama school. For administrators, this kind of fundraising is crucial if Yale hopes to maintain excellence in the arts.

Stern said he hoped the University’s next president would make the arts more of a priority.

“We need still to develop much more funding support for the arts in general,” Stern said. “Financial aid, faculty, endowed chairs, travel and research money for faculty. Professional schools in the arts have been shortchanged for ever.”

He added that the architecture school could be in better financial shape as well. What’s more, faculty in the professional arts school are usually paid at the lowest end of the University scale, he said, even lower than professors in Yale College.

He continued: “No president has ever said that they are not interested in the problem, but it would be great to have someone say, ‘The first thing I want to do is bolster the professional schools in the [arts].’”

LOOKING WEST, AND FORWARD

The next president will face the responsibility of upholding more than a decade of arts growth. But there’s only so much the next administration can hope to do before running out of time, money — and in Yale’s case, space.

Enter West Campus. In 2007, the University acquired around 600,000 square feet of property in West Haven and Orange, Conn., from Bayer Pharmaceuticals, in what Levin called at the time “a once-in-a-century opportunity.”

The new campus was initially positioned to expand the sciences at Yale. But Levin said West Campus has also been an unexpected bonus for the arts, particularly with its vast warehouse areas in which to store art collections.

The complex is also a space where coat-garbed scientists and art connoisseurs can work side by side. This alliance will help deepen Yale’s conservation program and efforts to digitize its art holdings.

“I describe West Campus as Yale’s ‘Louisiana purchase,’” Reynolds quipped. “It’s the next big wave of cross-disciplinary potential.”

Under Levin’s successor, the University administration will have to decide how to utilize West Campus, which Reynolds said could provide room for future growth in the arts.

A DEPARTING STEWARD

In May, Levin will host his last dinner for the honorary degree recipients at the British Art Center. Attendees will mingle amidst the greatest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom. The roof of the renovated art gallery will be in view outside the large windows.

In the light of the early evening, as everyone enjoys their meals, Levin will probably remind guests of the importance of art to life. The Levins and Meyers might gush one more time about their favorite painting at the Center, George Stubb’s “Zebra.”

A month later his tenure will be officially over.

To assess the trail Levin has blazed behind him, it’s easier to just ask around. He is quick to deflect any praise to his fellow administrators at the schools and galleries. For Richard and Jane, Blocker explained, Levin’s tenure hasn’t been “a task to gain personal recognition.”

Yet for many, like history of art professor Robert Thompson, Levin’s legacy will be difficult to match.

After Thompson stepped down in 2010 from 32 years of service as a residential college master, Levin visited Thompson to spend some time with him as he packed up his art collection in the Timothy Dwight master’s house. Thompson said no other Yale president had ever shown such an interest in his artistic passions.

“Rick Levin as guardian of the arts at Yale?” Thompson asked. “It’s gloriously redundant. I will miss the hell out of him.”

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