Spotlight on University Art Museums: Ian Berry (director, The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY)

“I believe that college and university museums occupy a very special place in the creative community, in that we are embedded in centers of research, learning, and dialogue, where concepts like intellectual freedom are inherent to the institution.”

I came to Skidmore in the summer of 2000, when the college was in the final stages of building the Tang Teaching Museum. Initially I was the founding curator, and for the past eight years I’ve served as the museum’s third Dayton director and chief curator. I’ve worked in college museums my whole working life, and I’m committed to that form and its position within the larger ecosystems of the museum and art worlds.

I believe that college and university museums occupy a very special place in the creative community, in that we are embedded in centers of research, learning, and dialogue, where concepts like intellectual freedom are inherent to the institution. There are many overlaps between university museums and civic museums. But as part of an academic institution, we are operating within an educational context that foregrounds experimentation, that foregrounds risk, that foregrounds debate. So we might not be subject to the same expectations or constraints that a public museum might face.

That can make us an especially receptive venue for artists who are wrestling with urgent social and political issues. Those issues can be troublesome, and art that addresses them, if it’s any good, is rarely easy. Teaching museums can be a showcase for the kind of contemporary art that might not do well in the marketplace.

College museums also have an important role to play in their communities. More than 8,000 K-12 school children come through the Tang every year. Adults from the region come for talks and performances by artists and academics from all over the world through the museum’s programming. We’ve become something like a town hall, as well. For the duration of this coming presidential election season, for instance, the Tang will be a hub for the college and local communities to come together to watch debates, meet each other and discuss local and national issues.

We see engaging the outside community in discussion as a key part of our mission. Artists are citizens along with the rest of us, and through their art they may help open a dialogue around common issues or experiences.

We are constantly thinking of ways to welcome new people in, even those who have not felt welcomed by a museum before. At the same time, the exhibitions we mount and the works in our collections more often ask questions than provide ready answers. That doesn’t fit everyone’s idea of a museum visit. But modeling how productive an encounter with the new, the unexpected, and even the discomfiting can be, is something that we work on every day.

We had a lot of things going for us when we opened the Tang in the fall of 2000, and one was that we were new. We could devise our mission, initiatives and place within our community right from the beginning.

I started my career right out of Bard CCS grad school at Williams College Museum of Art, which is one of the best teaching museums in the country but one that is traditionally aligned with the college’s great art history department. At the Tang, we wanted to be more like a laboratory or a studio, an experimental teaching space where different kinds of people could respond to our collections and exhibitions through the lens of their particular discipline.

For example, when we debut works by a contemporary painter, we invite the physicists, the dancers, the economists, the biologists, and the artists and art historians all to be in conversation together around those new paintings. And what emerges from that conversation has been the Tang’s great success story.

Over the past 20 years our exhibitions and programs have earned the attention of art collectors and museum supporters. We’re very small compared to some of the other museums to which donors give art, but we make outsize use of our collections through these interdisciplinary conversations. Most of the people who give work to the Tang appreciate our mission, and our holdings have grown to exceed 16,000 objects. They include masterpieces that would be at home in any museum, as well as a phenomenal photography collection, collections of African art, and textiles and ephemera, and archives that our teachers use all the time in their classes.

Many of objects in the museum arrive there through relationships built over time. We might present a small lobby project by an artist, for instance, then invite that artist to be part of a panel discussion the next year, and then, perhaps, have the opportunity to organize a retrospective with a catalogue a few years later. We like returning to artists, which I think is something that museums should do more. We have been able to show some fantastic projects, with contemporary artists in particular, because of those sustained relationships, which sometimes result in those artists’ works joining our collection.

We are always on the lookout for people within Skidmore who are publishing a new book or teaching a new class, or doing something interesting in their research, at which point we might reach out to them and ask if they’d like to talk with us at the museum. Or a faculty member will come to us and say, “I’m really interested in mapping.” Or someone is teaching about social class, or the environment.

One of our next shows, which opens in February, is called “Flex.” It was proposed by two professors, one of religion and one of classics, who had been teaching some courses together on how the legacy of Classical Antiquity manifests in the contemporary world. They had been talking about the image of the body and how comic book superheroes have origins in Classical Greek and Roman sculpture, and they asked us if we might be interested in making an exhibition. The show is about muscled bodies, and the diverse ways they have been represented in art and the media.

To maintain that level of openness takes practice. It’s much easier to stick to formats and subjects that have been successful in the past. We did a project last year with a theater class, who came to us wanting to use the museum’s public spaces for a performance. In the course of our conversation, we said to them, “Have you thought about using other spaces in the museum?” That led us to clear out the bulk of our collections so a theater piece could be presented in our area. It was a ton of work that resulted in a very special experience. The students and professors got into it and created a narrative that started at the loading dock and involved the audience following them through the nonpublic areas of the museum. We were exposed in a way that we usually aren’t, and we loved it.

That theater production was definitely not part of our plan for that semester. One of the advantages of teaching museums is that they are often more nimble than civic museums. They can jump to address and create things that other kinds of institutions can’t. The key concept for us is museum as place for art and dialogue. Which is another way of saying that we are driven by ideas.