John Trumbull’s painting of the Declaration of Independence, a cane chiseled with the healing arts of Africa and a silver beaker inscribed with Dutch allegories are all on vacation from the Yale University Art Gallery.
They are few of the more than 230 paintings, prints, photographs and decorative arts chosen for Yale University Art Gallery’s largest traveling exhibition, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” As the Gallery prepares for the renovation of Street Hall and Swartwout Hall, traveling exhibitions are carrying Yale’s diverse collection of American art across the country.
Organized by Helen Cooper, curator of American paintings and sculpture, the exhibit — divided into expression of heritage, citizenship and democracy, and cultural and material aspirations — explores the depths and struggles of defining American identity.
The closing of the gallery for renovations prompted the initiative for a traveling exhibition, Cooper said.
“When we learned the collection had to be removed from the gallery for renovations we were faced with some choices,” she said. “We could either put [the collection] in storage, and those who have to see them can make an appointment. Or they can travel.”
The exhibition serves as a teaching mission to locations that do not have strong local museums, said John Gordon, assistant curator of american decorative arts.
This is not something new. Whereas the broader University is only beginning to explore the use of new mediums to share its academic resources — such as through the Open Yale Courses Program — the Gallery has spread Yale scholarship through traveling exhibitions for years, Cooper said. The most recent traveling shows were “Master Drawings” in 2008 and “Société Anonyme: Modernism for America,” which will come to Yale in 2010.
“Maybe there’s a greater push right now to spread education, but there is no new underscoring philosophy to share the wealth,” Cooper said.
On Sept. 7, the exhibition started its national tour in Kentucky’s Speed Art Museum and will go to the Seattle Art Museum and Alabama’s Birmingham Museum of Art in 2009, Cooper said. The museums were chosen based on geography and their paucity in great American art.
The Gallery’s curators said what makes this exhibition unique is the release of objects that have never before left Yale campus. For instance, Trumbull’s collection of Revolutionary-era paintings had never left the Gallery in its entirety, except during World War II, when it was sent to caves in Kansas for safekeeping.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Lisa Hodermarsky, associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs. “All departments [in the art gallery] have things in the exhibition they don’t normally lend out. Together they tell the history of the founding of America.”
But the exhibition will not be held at Yale when the pieces return in 2011. Though space for a large showing will not be available because of the Gallery’s long-term renovation plans, Gordon said, the YUAG is aware of the intellectual activity provoked by the exhibit.
“Our department has been thinking about new ideas for installations,” Gordon said. “[The exhibition] won’t be on view here but the ideas we got from it will be evident.”
For Louisianans, the exhibition’s portrayal of American heritage couldn’t have come at a better time, several curators said. The election is little more than a week away, and as Louisianans decide which candidate to vote for, they need only to visit the showing to be reminded of what America has and should stand for, said Kirsten Pop, public information associate for the Speed Art Museum.
“It’s so relevant at this time to see what our founding fathers went through, especially when Americans today are questioning their own views of the nation,” she said.