A wood and shell ancestral statue from Indonesia, a solid gold Buddha statue from Java and a ceremonial cloth from Sulawesi will soon be on display at the Yale University Art Gallery.
The gallery announced last week the creation of an Indo-Pacific Art Department enabled by a gift from art collector Thomas Jaffe ’71, who is a freelance journalist. Jaffe donated his own 500-object collection of tribal sculptures from Southeast Asia and a newly purchased 500-piece collection of Indonesian textiles, and also endowed a curatorial position at the gallery for the creation and development of a new department. The department will be named after two Yale art history professors who inspired Jaffe as an undergraduate: Robert Farris Thompson ’55 GRD ’65, the current master of Timothy Dwight College, and the late George Kubler.
The new curatorial post will be filled by Ruth Barnes, textile curator of the Department of Eastern Art at Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum. She will officially assume the position in January 2010. Until then, she will begin her curatorial responsibilities on a case-by-case basis when consulted by the gallery.
Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, said the art in the collection is acknowledged to be the greatest in its field and added that a gift of international art was especially significant given the University’s mission of expanding its global presence.
“Everyone is interested in seeing how Yale is becoming a global university in scope,” Reynolds said. “It is wonderful that the gallery’s collection is also becoming highly international.”
Jaffe said his gift was inspired by the gallery’s recent expansion of its international collection through acquisitions and gifts — the Benenson Collection of African Art, for instance, which was acquired in 2004 as one of the largest gifts of art to the University — and the potential for more gallery space after financial circumstances allow the gallery to complete the renovation of the Swartwout building.
“I studied African and pre-Columbian art at Yale and I saw that there is potential and activity at the gallery in these areas,” Jaffe said. “This is a way to finally share this art with people who may get interested and expand the knowledge.”
The objects were sent to Yale at the end of the last calendar year and are currently being photographed and catalogued. The collection will have a large gallery of its own, which was originally scheduled to open in February 2011. But the delay in the Swartwout building’s renovation might push back this date to 2012, Jaffe said. Still, selected pieces from the collection will be on display by early fall and students will have access to them in teaching contexts.
Jaffe also said he chose a university gallery over a big city museum because of the opportunity for using the art in the classroom and lending and borrowing possibilities. He said that the Indo-Pacific art department will focus on building on its collection through acquisitions and donations.
In fact, the sculptures and textiles Jaffe donated have already been supplemented by a collection of Javanese gold jewelry and sculpture belonging to a Canadian couple. Jaffe said the couple, Hunter and Valerie Thompson, did not know much about the gallery until his gift convinced them to make a gift of their own.
Barnes, who has been a curator at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, the first university museum at the University of Oxford, for the past 19 years, arrived in New Haven on Saturday to discuss preliminary plans for the collection. Although she said it is still early to discuss specifics, she said there will be exhibitions, symposia and publications organized around the collection and that she wants to be involved in teaching.
For an inaugural exhibition, Barnes said she was thinking of illustrating the concept of this new department.
“Indo-Pacific — what does it mean; what’s special about it?” Barnes said. “I would like to explore what makes it different ethnographically and historically from eastern or southern culture.”
The name Indo-Pacific once referred to a family of languages from Southeast Asia and the Pacific, though the term is no longer used in linguistics. While the Indo-Pacific art collection at the gallery is currently comprised of Indonesian and Javanese art, the potential for expanding the collection to represent other areas in the region made the name an appropriate choice, Jaffe said.