WCMA houses rich tradition of collaborative teaching in the arts

Since its foundation in 1927, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), formerly named the Lawrence Art Museum, has been integrally connected to academics at the College. Known officially as a teaching museum, WCMA currently serves as one of the greatest and most unique resources available to students on campus.

“It’s here that you really get up-close and personal; there isn’t any glass between you and the works! You can really stick your nose in everything,” said Museum Associate (MA) Deena Bak ’13 in reference to the Rose Study Gallery in WCMA. “For printmaking, this has been invaluable to me. It’s not only inspiring to see old masters next to contemporary artists but also useful to try to learn from what artists have done before you.” Bak, a studio art major, is one of thousands of students who have experienced WCMA as a part of their College education.

History of the collection

 WCMA is at its core a teaching museum, and the advancements it has made in recent years have kept that goal in mind. Linda Shearer, director of the museum starting in 1989, spent 15 years expanding the interdisciplinary programming of the museum. Then, in 2004, a public exhibition space was converted into what is now known as the Rose Study Gallery. This space allows College faculty to teach in a classroom setting using objects from the museum’s art collection that are not on display. The current collection has about 13,000 objects.

The collection began over 150 years ago when the College received its first major works of art before the art museum was even in existence on campus. In 1851, three ninth-century B.C. Assyrian stone reliefs from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Ninevah were given to the College. Less than a decade later, the Williams Art Association was founded and began asking for art donations, despite the lack of space to display them.

The current WCMA rotunda, an octagonal space lined with columns, was originally designated as Lawrence Hall, the College’s library. When the Art Association began to collect art, it stored its collections all over campus. Around 1869, the Art Association disbanded after struggling to find enough art patrons to donate collections or funds to the College. Nearly 20 years later, the group was revitalized as the focus on art and teaching began to change within the school.

In 1887, Eliza Peters Field donated 85 objects to the College in addition to funds that helped add the east and west wings to WCMA’s octagonal building. Around the turn of the century, the College established a history of art department, but it was not until 1927 that Karl Weston, the College’s Amos Lawrence professor of art, founded the Lawrence Art Museum. Another wing was added behind the museum to house classrooms intended for the study of art and the classics. This addition was the first major step to bringing the College’s art collection into the classroom.

In 1948, one of the museum’s most influential leaders, S. Lane Faison ’29, was made director of the museum. Faison not only significantly expanded the museum’s collection but also improved the art history department at the same time, remaining in his position until the late ’70s. He is still considered one of the most influential leaders of the museum and the department by many of the College’s current faculty. In 1962, the Lawrence Art Museum was officially renamed the Williams College Museum of Art.

Collaboration between WCMA and academics 

Today, Elizabeth Gallerani, coordinator of Mellon Academic Programs, continues the integration of academics and WCMA. She spoke about developments that WCMA has made in the past couple of years to better assist the College’s faculty. She described the museum’s relationship to professors as flexible. “We are always trying to tweak it over time,” Gallerani said. “We build these relationships with faculty and work with the same class four to five times, tailoring it as they need.”

Gallerini also explained that WCMA has recently focused on building awareness about its collection in every academic discipline. “You can have an econ professor and an art studio professor seeing the same piece in very different ways,” she said.

One of the greatest advancements the museum has recently accomplished is completely digitizing its collection into an online database, called eMuseum. This allows faculty to search the collection to see if there are any pieces at WCMA that may be relevant to their classes. It also allows students to search the database themselves. “The digital is a really nice supplement,” Gallerani said. She explained that it is not meant to replace visiting WCMA to see the actual piece, but serves instead to provide an easier way to access the works or to know what is in the collection before coming to the museum.

Opportunities for students at WCMA 

As the primary benefactors of WCMA, students of the College have many opportunities to take advantage of the museum, as students in the classrooms, as museum tour guides for younger students or museum associates (MAs) and as interns.

Samantha Murray ’14 has taken classes in both the art history and art studio departments that used WCMA’s collection.

“WCMA has provided me with some truly awesome experiences outside the classroom. I’m always amazed when they take aside materials especially for us and let us handle works and books that are several hundred years old,” she said.

As an art studio major, Bak has quite a different perspective on the museum. “I’ve found that visiting the museum is really valuable when you’re trying to master new techniques,” she said. “Professor [of Art Michael] Glier took us into the galleries last year for oil painting class, and we’d spend an entire afternoon just talking about artists’ techniques. In person, you really get to see how the paint was applied to the canvas.”

WCMA also provides opportunities for students outside of the classroom by employing MAs and interns. Both Bak and Murray worked as MAs at WCMA, and Bak served as an education intern last summer. “The MA program is an integral part of WCMA as a teaching museum because it’s one of the biggest ways teaching goes on in the galleries,” Bak said. “WCMA is not just for college students. The MA program has taught me a lot about education in general and has allowed me to really share my love of art with other students.”

Faculty and student perspectives 

Many departments across all divisions take advantage of the museum’s resources. “It’s a brilliant teaching museum,” said Eva Grudin, senior lecturer in art. Grudin, who has been teaching at the College since the 1970s, described how the art history department has integrated the idea of looking at the piece of art in person as a part of its mission.

“We are a department that historically, and certainly at the 100 level, crawls into art; we stick with pictures,” Grudin said. “It’s because of this commitment to close looking that we produce so many people in the art world.” It is a testament to the success of WCMA’s relationship to the art department that many students from the College go on to be art dealers, museum curators and artists themselves.

“Since WCMA is a small institution, these internships really give you a good sense of what each department does within the museum,” Bak said. “Though I worked in education, I got to learn about curatorial, preparatory, registrar and development departments. It’s really helpful for those who still are trying to figure out where their career is headed. I think I finally learned that museum education is where I see myself later in life; working with people and sharing my love of the arts.”

Grudin also quoted an alum, David Tunick ’66, as saying, “My life was changed when I realized that I was holding a real Rembrandt in class.” Tunick is now one of the most renowned dealers in prints and drawings in the world and owns his own business, David Tunick, Inc.

It is the experience that students get from working with – and at times even holding or touching – real works of art that makes WCMA one of the most valuable teaching resources on campus.

Other departments at the College also use the museum in more surprising ways.

Assistant Professor of Computer Science Morgan McGuire explained that he uses WCMA in many of his classes, particularly “Creating Games.” For McGuire, the most important aspect to keep in mind is that despite the labeled “divisions,” all of the disciplines that the College has to offer are interlaced and connected. “In ‘Creating Games’, we spend the first half of the course in the Rose and other galleries,” McGuire said. “We study famous works for classic studio and art history topics. These begin with basics of color theory, composition and perspective, but eventually drive towards the use of abstraction, narrative and visual relationships to communicate human experience.”

He then described the roles for science and art in his course. To him, these are different but mutually essential media for communicating truth, one objective and one subjective. “A world-class museum on campus is a rare resource that makes Williams special,” McGuire said. “We look to works for both visual elements and for deeper inspiration. For example, artists from Georgia O’Keefe and Thomas Cole communicated more than just the surface image with their paintings in WCMA. What does it mean to take the soul of a painting and transform it into an interactive medium? It doesn’t have to be about flowers or pastels anymore – it is about recreating the experience of the painting.”

Other courses that use WCMA or have used WCMA in the past include “Image, Imaging and Imagining: The Brain and Visual Arts,” taught by Betty Zimmerberg, chair and professor of psychology; “Movement and Art Making,” taught by Sandra Burton, Lipp Family Director of dance and senior lecturer in dance; and “Picturing Race,” taught by Peter Erickson, visiting professor of humanities.

Whether WCMA is used in a more traditional way, like when Grudin shows two Rembrandt prints that display the same subject made at different times, or in a more surprising way, like when McGuire teaches students how to transform the feeling of a painting into a computer game, the museum serves as an invaluable resource for the College.

Grudin summarized the benefit of WCMA as a teaching museum: “The collection allows our students to discover, rather than be told.”

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