♦ Yale University Art Museum, Breaking Ground in American Education

“Trumbull felt so passionate about his paintings that he was buried beneath the gallery interestingly enough.

Jessie Schwetke

Shortly after Yale was founded it acquired its first art piece in what became a very old and extensive collection. In 1718 Governor Elihu Yale donated a Portrait of King George 1 painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller. It wasn’t till 1832 that they erected the Trumbull Gallery, which was the first college art museum in the United States. Before the establishment of the college gallery, the university’s collection consisted mainly of portraits of professors and important figures donated by students and commissioned by the school. Having this collection of portraits may have seemed indulgent to some but was considered a source of inspiration to the students.[1]

            Yale’s relationship with John Trumbull, the artist who designed Yale’s campus, expanded Yale from a collector of portraits to having their own museum for art right on their campus which opened October 25, 1832. Naturally, Trumbull designed the gallery himself. This gallery was filled with portraits and Civil War paintings by Trumbull, which gave a significant boost to Trumbull’s career. “Trumbull was thus well established as the nation’s premier American history painter by the time Yale acquired his Revolutionary War series in 1832.”[2] Trumbull felt so passionate about his paintings that he was buried beneath the gallery. The South gallery displayed Yale’s collection of portraiture not painted by Trumbull and continued to grow. Having a gallery on campus not only provides a valuable resource for scholarly pursuit but generates some cash flow for the university as well.  The Trumbull Gallery set the precedent for university art museums, being the first one.

John Trumbull, The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, 1786-1820, Oil on canvas, 53x 78.7 cm, accessed May 2011,http://artgallery.yale.edu/devel/pages/collection/permanent/pc_amerps.html

Yale University Art Gallery, accessed May 2011, http://www.yale.edu/museums/index.html 

             In 1858, Yale faculty, students and alumni banded together with Professor Edward E. Salisbury to create an exhibition.[3]  Most of this work came as loans from members of the community and friends of Yale. This was all done in the collective interest in spreading the love for art. Lectures on art were also offered during the exhibition to enforce the educational value of art. The exhibition was a great success and cultivated quite an interest in the fine arts. The exhibition generated discussions on art in an educational setting. The reviews of the show praised Yale for the integration of fine art into the curriculum.[4] It was claimed to be a higher standard for education that would give hope for brighter futures. Daniel Coit Gilman, who published a review in the New Englander and Yale Review, hoped every university in the future of the country would have a university art museum.[5] The exhibited works included portraits and landscapes as well as some well-known British artists, contemporary American art, copies of works by Raphael and Domenichino, and sculpture.

            Augustus Russell Street, a Yale graduate, strongly believed in art education and proposed to build a School of the Fine Arts on Yale’s campus in 1864.[6]  After participating in the 1858 exhibition, Street wanted to perpetuate the artistic culture among students. Along with class space, Street factored in gallery space to display artworks that were easily accessible for student use. With the opening of these galleries they quickly filled with replications of old master’s work and contemporary work. This left the south gallery to continue as just the Trumbull Gallery. Having replicas of the old master’s work was a valuable asset to the school because it provided the same quality of instruction as the art schools in Europe that had access to the original works.[7] The plaster casts were funded by the admission costs of contemporary art exhibits. Those involved in the creation of this school and galleries were sadly the only ones funding it along with fund raising from exhibitions. The university of Yale itself gave no funds to them and didn’t even count fine art classes for a credit until years later.[8]

            As the collection of art expanded, so did the gallery space in the art school. In order to support and fund this expansion, Dean Meeks formed the Associates in Fine Arts at Yale, which now is known as Members of the Yale Art Museums. “This organization has played a key role in the collaboration between the museum and New Haven in advancing the museum’s educational program in the community.”[9] In order to inform the community on museum events and financial situations the organization published the Bulletin of the Associates in Fine Arts at Yale University. Not only did this cultivate interest and funds but even more donations as well to strengthen the collection. Loans and donations to the gallery enabled shows with a wide range of media. When the new building was constructed it not only provided new gallery space but more classroom space as well. The Gothic style of the building itself was designed for artistic study, to further it’s educational value. “With the opening of the Gallery of Fine Arts in 1928, the museum entered a new phase in which it was to a much greater extent a separate conceptual and physical entity from the School of Art.”[10] The classrooms and studio space had their own building while the gallery got their own space to tailor in the interests of the artwork. 

            Yale being the first to have a gallery as part of the university, it is only fitting that it was on the forefront of excavating artifacts and educating on the exploration. Their first partnership with the Egypt Exploration Fund played a large role in their Mediterranean and Egyptian art collection.[11] Yale got a number of excavation pieces as a way of thanks, and shared with the students and community through their gallery. Professor Michael I. Rostovtzeff was interested in the exploration and expanding of historic knowledge and formed a partnership with the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters for excavations with students. Students from all departments took interest and helped in the excavations for new relics to display in the gallery. This gave Yale’s art community an insight to the Roman Empire and life in ancient Greece that the academics were just now learning.

            Due to the constantly growing collection of art and ancient artifacts it became imperative to appoint a curatorial staff to care for the collections.[12] Each staff member had a focus to care for paintings, sculpture, and works on paper; American decorative arts; and ancient Mediterranean art. A docent, Elizabeth Chase, was also appointed due to the responsibilities the gallery held to provide an educational experience to both students and the community. Being well educated in art history, Chase gave many lectures on gallery exhibits as well as the permanent collection. Chase also arranged lectures from other scholars in field of fine arts.

            During the 1940’s contemporary art began to reflect on World War II. Katherine S. Dreier and Marcel Duchamp formed the Société Anonyme in order to bring this art to Yale. “The purpose of the Société was to spread the gospel of modern art in America, which Miss Dreier had found to be still mired in the realism of the nineteenth century.”[13] This greatly helped Yale stay on the cusp of intellectual artistic development. The Société Anonyme was also a way for artists to have a hand in the education of their practice. The exhibits that were put together showcased many European artists for the first time in America. Some of these artists, like Wassily Kandinsky, became very well known and widely studied. The idea of the gallery was to keep it contemporary and have no permanent collection. Though due to the number of works Dreier was collecting, the Société wanted to open a museum in Dreier's home to display the art. Yale convinced the Société to instead give the works to the Yale gallery, where they would be better cared for and used as educational tools. The collection still stands as part of Yale’s permanent collection. “It remains an extra level of value in being a collection representative of it’s time, both in the artists it includes and in the artists’ vision of modern art that it embodies.”[14]

            Charles H. Sawyer, dean of the School of Fine arts and director of the Division of Arts, realized the need for a new building for gallery space. With considerable donations by alumni and friends of Yale, the new building was erected. It was built with thoughtful construction to all the building’s possible uses in education. The new gallery had ceilings that promoted airflow wherever the walls are put up. Artificial and natural lighting was also taken into consideration with large windows overlooking a natural landscape. The building itself became a valuable educational tool to teach the present architecture students modern developments in design. This building is what still stands today as the Kahn Gallery.

            In 1957 Andrew Carnduff Ritchie became the director and very passionately pursued gathering new funding and artwork for Yale’s already extensive collection. Ritchie continued his drive of improving the school when he remodeled the Kahn Gallery to include air conditioning, and open up classroom and gallery space. Once he had staffed the gallery he went back on his pursuit to fill the gaps in the collection. With the improved gallery and collection “attendance grew, exceeding 100,000 in the 1959/60 academic year.”[15] Ritchie set high standards for directors who came after him.

Alan Shestack wanted to maintain the high standard Yale and the art community was used to. Since university art museums were groundbreaking advancements to the states and Yale, Shestack decided to propose the question “who should run museums?” Studies were done to learn the basic necessities an art museum director must have, such as art history and a mind for business. Shestack set the bar not only for university art museum directors but any art museum director.

Yale had set the standard for universities in America. Having art available to students to study from became a staple for universities. Today there are thousands of university art galleries across America. Yale’s art galleries are still viewed as one of the best university galleries in America because of its history and extensive collection. Today Yale still displays their permanent collection as well as a rotation of shows and lectures. In 1988 plans for a new building to house more gallery and classroom space were started and is still under construction today.

[1] Susan B. Matheson, Art For Yale: A History of the Yale University Art Gallery (Connecticut, Yale University Art Gallery), 6.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 31.

[4] Ibid., 34.

[5] Ibid., 34.

[6] Ibid., 37.

[7] Ibid., 39.

[8] Ibid., 42.

[9] Ibid., 71.

[10] Ibid., 75.

[11] Ibid., 111.

[12] Ibid., 115.

[13] Ibid., 122.

[14] Ibid., 125.

[15] Ibid., 172.