The Art Museum and the University: Expanding a Shared Vision at Yale University and Beyond

By Jaime Ursic with Laura Mitchell

University museums occupy unique positions in cultural environments: they operate at the nexus of campus and community, accessibility and rigor, lived experience and scholarly expertise. Particularly as the broader museum field asks questions about its future and seeks new approaches to education, public engagement, and inclusive museum practices, the university museum offers an intriguing laboratory for these questions. In many ways, the questions currently driving dialogue in university museums reflect not only common questions in the museum field, but also the broader issue of the evolving ways in which culture and knowledge are produced, discussed, studied, and shared. University museums, which intertwine public engagement with the traditional structures of the university, are uniquely situated to consider these questions, with implications both for universities and for other museums and cultural institutions.

Expanding a Shared Vision: The Art Museum and the University

To this end, Yale University Art Gallery and Yale Center for British Art hosted Expanding A Shared Vision: The Art Museum and the University May 8-10, 2014. The conference brought together over 300 museum professionals from across the country to discuss campus museum-audience engagement and ways to weave art collections into college and university curricula. Campus museums have long been training grounds for future museum professionals as well as being hubs of informal education — a lifelong process whereby individuals acquire attitudes, values, skills and knowledge from daily experience and the educative influences of his or her environment. The conference offered an opportunity for practitioners both to learn from other approaches to this work and to consider the roles of their work within rapidly evolving contexts.

As the conference convened on Thursday, May, 8, a panel representing practitioners from museums at Yale, UCLA, UC Berkeley, and the University of Washington took on the topic of audience engagement. The questions in this area are big ones, and the panel touched on the many audiences that shape work within university museums – including students, faculty, staff, artists, and the wider community. As a group, the panelists spoke to the integration of participatory, shared-authority models into various aspects of their work, from artist-driven projects to exhibitions on local cultures, and the case studies they presented highlighted both the benefits and the challenges of various approaches to these projects. The panelists presented museums as ideal spaces for participatory experiences and discourse, with several people commenting on the role of art in “defamiliarizing” concepts and prompting new ways of seeing, thinking, and talking about experiences, ideas, and the world around us.

Expanding a Shared Vision: The Art Museum and the UniversityFriday morning brought together a panel of Academic Program Curators to discuss Teaching and Learning with Art. Their emphasis was on inquiry-based, object-centric learning and how it fosters transferable skills, such as creative problem-solving, collaborating, questioning assumptions, taking risks and making sense of the unfamiliar. Panelists shared examples of how their campus museum has become a laboratory-like venue for experimentation. Combinatory play, which is a method of considering new possibilities by combining unlikely elements, inspired Einstein and Steve Jobs and is being appropriated for the campus museum experience. Directors, curators, and educators are being asked to take risks, experiment, and challenge art historical thinking, pedagogy, and exhibition design. Additionally, artist involvement was lauded as a hybrid way to develop “animated” spaces and engagement galleries that inspire a new level of audience participation. Taken together, these approaches point to museums’ unique capacity to leverage their collections and existing resources for participation, experiential learning, and the development of process-based skills that are beneficial across disciplinary lines – while continuing to maintain the curatorial rigor and sense of wonder that they have long placed at the center of their work.

Demonstrating that practice supports theory, Yale University Art Gallery’s gallery teachers guided attendees in conversations about art objects. Engaging groups of museum professionals may be intimidating, but the gallery teachers demonstrated their professionalism along with their pedagogy and knowledge. Conference attendees were able to enjoy looking at and discussing an artwork for a sustained period of time – proving that even museum professionals can experience new ways of seeing.

Curators and Education was the topic of the afternoon panel, which included curators from museums at Brandeis, Princeton, UCLA, University of Oregon, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Curators, traditionally the “keepers” of collections, discussed how interdisciplinary thinking is essential to their work in art history and how their role has evolved to assume responsibilities of publicist, producer, catalyst, educator, entertainer, participant, and so on. Opinions about curator training supported a return to curatorial apprenticeships, rather than museum studies programs, and called for more collaboration with working artists to emphasize artistic practice rather than just the finished objects. Much like previous panels, the emphasis on hands-on training and process-based collaboration was palpable, and the conference hosts demonstrated this ethos with their programming surrounding the official events on Friday. Yale University Art Gallery highlighted its student-curated exhibition, Contemporary Art/South Africa with a tour by student curators and artist Mikhael Subotzky. A reception followed at the Yale Center for British Art, where another student-curated exhibition, Art in Focus: Wales was on view.

Expanding a Shared Vision: The Art Museum and the UniversityOn Saturday, Jock Reynolds, the Henry Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery, led a roundtable discussion with fellow directors from Colby College, Harvard, Williams College, Dartmouth and the University of Texas, Austin. The unique opportunities afforded to campus museums were addressed, as well as the role that college and university museums can play in 21st century higher education. Again, interdisciplinary collaboration was underscored, as was the importance of embracing digital technologies and shifting the focus from collecting and studying to the process of actually making. The official conference closed reaffirming that there is no single paradigm within which a college or university museum fits, but rather the museum becomes an instigator for change.

Following the conference, smaller interactive workshops were offered to conference participants. Topics ranged from K-12 teaching, medical school collaborations and special needs programs to teaching foreign languages with art collections. These workshops were opportunities for museum professionals to brainstorm new ideas and share experiences, and the sheer breadth of topics addressed highlighted the many roles that university museums find themselves encompassing. Much as these museums aim to be laboratories for experimentation and instigators for change, the conference provided an opportunity for professionals to learn, play, and collaborate in new ways. As attendees take this experience back to their institutions – whether it’s in a big way, like developing a new community program, or a simple act like pausing to reflect on their institutional mission – the evolving work of university museums will continue to provide exciting models and provoke significant questions within the fields of higher education and culture, and the often intertwined institutions that help shape them.

The Conference at Yale was made possible by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Lydia Winston Malbin Fund, the Manton Foundation Public Education Fund, the Nolen Center for Art and Education Endowment Fund, and the Nolen-Bradley Family Fund for Education.