The Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) is full of excitement surrounding the acquisition of a prestigious grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) that will enable the museum to digitalize their archives of the famous American artists and brothers Charles and Maurice Prendergast. Additionally, while this project is beginning, a search process is underway for a full-time director of WCMA. WCMA is currently led by Interim Director Katy Kline, who was appointed during the summer after former director of WCMA Lisa Corrin stepped down last spring.
Kline described WCMA as an “exemplary institution for letting educational imperatives direct all of its activities.” Additionally, her warm feelings toward the College are strengthened by the fact that she grew up in Williamstown and had strong exposure to both WCMA and the nationally recognized Clark Museum. Before accepting the role as interim director at WCMA, Kline had previously served as the director of Bowdoin College Museum of Art from 1998-2008, as well as serving as the curator and eventual director of the List Visual Arts Center at MIT, working on projects such as the contemporary art exhibition program.
While Kline herself is not a candidate in the national search for a replacement director, she has been “happy to make suggestions throughout the search process,” giving names and recommendations through her network of educational colleagues. “The committee will be looking for people committed to the mission of WCMA as a teaching institution,” she said. Kline describes her role as interim director as helping to “keep everything together,” making sure that important projects and goals such as collection acquisitions are “exciting and on track.”
“I’ll do whatever I can to make it easier here and keep the institution moving ahead with the goal of continuing to grow, experiment and try new things,” Kline said.
One of WCMA’s crowning achievements that Kline has helped oversee is the recent Prendergast grant, which will give the museum $150,000 over three years to put toward digitally preserving the College’s Prendergrast collection. Many are not familiar with the fact that the College currently houses the biggest and most important depository of work by the Prendergast brothers in the world, including several manuscripts, sketchbooks and personal letters written between the brothers, as well as watercolor and oil paintings. Many of the pieces are so fragile that they cannot be taken out of storage for more than a few months at a time. The digitalization through extensive photography of this exhaustive collection will therefore be a “real achievement” for WCMA, and will enable the archives to be integrated and compressed into a digital archive that can be accessed by any interested party in the world. “This is important to us because people from all over the world who need access [to these archives] will have access to all of these works,” Kline explained. The project, which began in August, will continue for the next three years, culminating in a website that will be linked to the WCMA webpage. As photography begins, the artwork will begin to be uploaded onto the newly created archive throughout the three-year process.
The College received this incredible depository of Prendergast artwork between 1982 and 1994 at the hands of Eugenia Prendergast, the wife of artist Charles Prendergast. Having previously given WCMA several pieces of Prendergast artwork, she was looking for a permanent home for the extensive amount of work that still remained at her home at Westport, Conn. Because of her desire to have the artwork be intertwined with the goals of education, she arrived at an agreement with WCMA that gave the museum approximately 400 pieces of art and archival letters, magazines, books and photographs belonging to the Prendergasts. Included in this remarkable gift was a donation of around seven million dollars to be used for educational initiatives surrounding American artwork within the lifespan of the Prendergast brothers. The money was used to open several new galleries in the museum, as well as to support a number of positions at WCMA. The Prendergast artwork in the archives has been used consistently throughout several galleries and showcases at WCMA over the years, with the galleries funded by Eugenia Prendergast expanded to include other works from the time period of the brothers.
“We are excited to digitalize the collection and archive, primarily to make it readily available to the public,” said Edith Schwarz, Prendergast archive assistant. “Visitors to the museum often ask where our Prendergasts are hanging and we have to tell them that they are in storage. All of these items are available to scholars if they come in to the museum, but now with the collection being digitalized, it will be available to all.”
Kline commented that the digitalization of this enormous collection points to a new future in the display of art collections, removed from the expensive traveling exhibitions that were much more frequent five to 10 years ago. The economic recessions in the past decade have “hit museums hard,” she said, and museums all over the country are increasingly looking inward to their own stock as a source of artistic and educational inspiration and guidance. Digitalization and technology “is the direction of the future,” Kline said, “more than the enormously costly, freestanding, traveling exhibitions that defined museums previously. For teaching and educational purposes, there’s nothing that beats the Internet.”