Summing Up: The Virginia Network

Every art museum and gallery we visited was pretty amazing, in one way or another. The art was great and the people stupendous, warm, and welcoming. That said, one of the problems at many of the institutions we visited is that they are understaffed and the personnel are underpaid. This does nothing for morale, nor the upkeep of the collections, many of which are world-class. It also makes the collections potentially vulnerable to aggressive raids orchestrated by private interests. And one of the things we discovered is that it made absolutely no difference whether or not the art museums and galleries were housed in public or private schools. What did make a difference, was the independence of the art museums and galleries vis-à-vis the university’s administrative framework. Longwood, was the shining example of a museum with solid financial and administrative autonomy. This can be directly attributed to their code of ethics and declaration of standards. It clearly delineates the relationship between the museum and the university, and it seems to be working very well for both parties. If it isnt being used as a policy guide and model for other university art museums and galleries already, not only within Virginia, but across the country, it should be.

            Another issue, at all of the museums we visited, was the time and effort it takes to curate and keep track of the parts of the collection that are actually housed in offices and other public spaces throughout campus, inside and outside. Choosing works of art with faculty members and superintendents is incredibly time consuming, and accounting for people’s differing tastes is a tricky and sometimes very sensitive matter requiring sophisticated diplomacy.

Every college and university, not just those with art museums and galleries, should have a curator and preparator whose sole job it is to curate and protect the on campus collection. Again, Longwood is another interesting example in this respect, as they have recently developed a system, a part from their collection management system, specifically designed to keep track of works of art installed in private and public spaces across the campus. From selection, installation, monitoring, conservation, and restoration, the position of the campus curator and preparator, and their accompanying duties are too extensive to be taken care of by the museum staff, in addition to their regular duties. The importance of the campus curator and preparator cannot be emphasized enough. These are the people who make the art accessible, who make it a part of the faculty members and students everyday lives in a fundamental (yet often under-appreciated) way. Every campus should have such a team in place with their own offices and workspace, who also work closely, so that they can co-ordinate their efforts with the staff of the art museum and/or gallery.

Another problem that we encountered more often than we would like to admit was that even the best collections suffered from poor websites, low to nonexistent internet presence, and finally simple indifference to the myriad of benefits advanced technology offers to any art museum. The University of Virginia Art Museum deserves a mention here for their outstanding online collection initiative, and Longwood, yet again, is a model, for the way they use Facebook to connect with their communities, not to mention the other work they are doing with their university’s internet technology team, designing phone applications for campus tours of their sculpture installations. The Anderson, it should also be noted, also has just unveiled a beautiful new website that is leading the pack.           

Two other issues need to be mentioned. One of the saddest features of every/and any university art museum and gallery, and I know this is a national problem in fact, is the relevance of their print collections. The print collections at many of these institutions were developed in the seventies, as they were inexpensive and were considered to be a useful tool in the democratization of art, the ideal teaching tool in fact, and all that is true, to some extent. But, the other truth of the matter is that for the most part they remain locked away in storage, and go unused and unappreciated for who knows how many years. This is unacceptable. It is close to hoarding in spirit, and goes against the very principles that motivated the development of these collections in the first place. Happily there is an excellent and proven solution!

In the 1940s, Ellen Johnson, a professor of art at Oberlin College began an art rental program.


it occurred to me that if students could have works of art in their dormitory rooms, it would not only develop their aesthetic sensibilities, but might encourage ordered thinking and discrimination even in other areas of their lives. I was given seven hundred dollars to purchase and frame reproductions of art masterpieces. So began one of the earliest, if not the first, college art rental collections in the country. Gradually, over the next decades, reproductions were completely replaced by originals... For many years, at twenty-five cents, and even now at five dollars, a student can hang in his or her room for a whole semester (works by Picasso, Matisse, Goya, Jasper Jones, or Jim Dine).[1]

Certainly there is a risk involved, and there would be casualties, and disappearances, one cannot deny it. However, benefits far outweigh the risks. The best works and most valuable works would be kept back, but everything else, could go forth and prosper (in dorms only–although an off campus program could also eventually be developed perhaps, with an electronic tracking system, similar to those that have been recently developed at Yale). Students would begin to understand the joys of living with art, and perhaps be inspired to become collectors themselves, who might in time be moved to help build the collections of their Alma maters.

Secondly, at all campuses, again with the exception of Longwood, and the University of Virginia which currently has a Henry Moore on view, sculpture was almost non-existent everywhere. It is underdeveloped within the collections, and in terms of its presence on campus. This is particularly puzzling in a state that boasts the leading sculpture program in the country. Again, clearly this is a national problem, and not just on university campuses, but Virginia being home to such a lively and active scene, in terms of contemporary sculpture, has the potential to be a leader in changing the tide.

In conclusion, there are two final propositions we would like to make to strengthen and build the Virginia university art museum and gallery community, or network (VUAMGN). In the course of creating our press release list we produced a list of university art museum contacts for Virginia. The list is now in the possession of everyone who is on it. We hope that in the future it will be used as a listserv and a forum to raise and answer important questions common to everyone working in the Virginia community. We also propose that a yearly daylong symposium be inaugurated so that different university art museums and galleries can discuss new programs and initiatives in person. Both of these ideas are connected to our final and last overture.

            The mission statement calls for the establishment of “a rotating exchange program in which university art museums and galleries throughout the world will have the opportunity to share and circulate their artwork.” This idea came out of a wonderful discussion we had during our field trip to the Maier Museum of Art. The idea was that a network would have two functions. One it would allow museums with rich collections to share their wealth with institutions that are still growing, and secondly that it would provide protection for collections that are under threat, in so far as when and if the art thieves arrive, the artworks in question will be elsewhere. This idea could be tested at the state level and then, if it works, be put in place nationally and internationally. Our conclusion was that this initiative should also take the form of a collaborative class on how to set up the Virginia university art museum and gallery network and exchange program.

[1] Ellen Johnson Interview, Allen Memorial Art Museum, 2004.