Visual Arts Feature: Smart Art Museums

Boston-area college art museums go where many mainstream exhibition spaces fear to tread.

By Margaret Weigel
Originally Published February 07, 2006

Boston, MA – Throw a stone in Boston and you’ll hit a college (or an undergraduate); throw it a little further, and you’ll likely hit a college gallery or museum. The Boston metropolitan area is home to over fifty institutions of higher learning, and many schools support their own art center, museum or gallery. Given the wealth of major galleries and exhibition spaces in the city, the latter led by the world-class Museum of Fine Arts, why should we care?

The answer is simple: university museums don’t indulge in high-profile, high-expense “Objects Loved by a Billionaire” or “Blenders from the Ralph Lauren Collection” megashows or art-for-sale exhibitions. Armed with a mission to educate, supported by institutional funds and flush with elbow room, university galleries are freer to mount risky exhibits that tickle the intellect. They are also able to pay less attention to the bottom line and more to presenting art.

Alas, when it comes to mainstream media coverage university museums tend to be overlooked, punished by their ability to move in more eclectic creative directions. For those ready to explore alternative visual arts experiences, the following offers a few observations on major university museums in the Boston-area.

Harvard University is the 600-lbs gorilla of the local college art world, boasting three top-notch art museums: the Busch-Reisinger, the Fogg, and the Sackler. The Fogg is Harvard’s oldest art museum and home to several well-known art masterpieces such as van Gogh’s oft-reproduced 1888 self-portrait dedicated to fellow Impressionist Paul Gauguin. The Fogg’s impressive number of historically important work rivals the MFA and other museums of similar size and caliber. Indeed, viewing the Fogg’s impressive collection of work from the Renaissance to the 20th century is like strolling through the pages of an Art History textbook: oh, look, it’s Charles Sheeler and Jackson Pollack! Hey, there’s Rodin!

The Busch-Reisinger houses edgier 20th century European and American artists such as Paul Klee and Walter Gropius, and claims its share of art history’s “greatest hits,” such as Max Beckmann’s 1927 “Self-Portrait in Tuxedo.” And the Sackler museum is the home to exemplary ancient, Islamic, Asian, and later Indian art objects.

If Harvard’s museums are the Yankees of the local college art scene, MIT’s are the Red Sox — charming, engaging and a little different. A few blocks east of Cambridge’s Central Square, the MIT Museum’s mission is to “stimulate an understanding and appreciation of the meanings of scientific and technological innovation in the modern world,” and exhibits tread the line between art, functionality and inventiveness. In addition to its exhibits on artificial intelligence and holography, the Museum features the pioneering work of Harold “Doc” Edgerton, who spent decades capturing precise and memorable moments on film, such as 1964’s “Shooting the Apple” (with a bullet and a camera).

Another popular exhibit at the Museum is the whimsical and affecting “gestural engineering” of Arthur Ganson. The sole function of Ganson’s “Machine with Oil” is to lubricate itself, its shovel repeatedly dipping into a pool of oil and showering it down over its own gears. Ganson’s “Cory’s Yellow Chair,” a miniature wooden chair methodically splintering into pieces and reassembling itself, is eloquent and poetic.

MIT’s List Visual Arts Center focuses more on cutting-edge contemporary artists, with a penchant for installation, video and conceptual art. Previous exhibits include the immersive sound and light experiences contained in Winter 2004’s “Son et Lumiere” and Fall 2001’s retrospective of Yoko Ono’s avant-garde objects, installations, and performances. The Spartan grey of MIT’s campus architecture is enlivened by one of the most extensive collections of contemporary public sculpture, featuring such luminaries as Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson, Pablo Picasso, and Alexander Calder.

If Harvard’s museums are the Yankees, and MIT’s museums are the Red Sox, an often overlooked crop of university-based galleries and museums to the west might be the Tampa Bay Devil Rays — lower-profile institutions whose exhibits reliably delight and surprise.

In addition to frequently displaying the work of students, Tufts University’s Aidekman Art Center mounts impressive juried shows. Last spring, for instance, the Aidekman hosted the compelling, revelatory images from Lauren Greenfield’s 2002 book “Girl Culture,” and the witty sartorial insights of over 50 artists in the fashion-focused “Patter Culture.”

Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum in Waltham, MA consistently produces provocative shows that push the boundaries of its modest building. In last winter’s haunting “DreamingNow” show, for instance, Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota’s “During Sleep” filled the museum’s lower level with a dense tangle of black yarn over and across a series of neatly made cots. Fellow exhibit artist Cai Guo Quiang hung hundreds of playful red paper lanterns and filled the floor of the exhibit room with an undulating tide of luxurious red fabric.

Wellesley College’s Davis Museum and Cultural Center hosts an eclectic potpourri of exhibits, ranging from the progressive work of young contemporary filmmaker Steve McQueen and urban graffiti master Aaron Noble to “The ‘Master Prints’ of Hendrick Goltzius and Mannerist Art.” The future promises more of the same inspiring mix-and-match: an installation by Xu Bing, an innovative Chinese sculptor and MacArthur genius grantee will be followed by a show displaying oversized and composite prints from sixteenth-century Europe.

Finally, Regis College, a four-year women’s private Catholic school in Weston, MA, may seem an unlikely place for a high-caliber art center. But the Carney Gallery at the school’s Fine Arts Center, regularly hosts intriguing exhibits. Its current show, Jane Maxwell’s “Doll Deconstruction Series,” uses a generic paper doll form plastered with commercial messages to interrogate notions of beauty.

The Carney Gallery website modestly states “the exhibitions at the Carney Gallery focus on works by contemporary women artists enabling Regis College to play an important role in fostering the growth of women in the arts.” But it is the sharp focus of the Carney Gallery, and the other academic institutions mentioned here, on smart art that makes the shows hosted by these schools so compelling, challenging, and valuable. So the next time you curse a loud house party, remember that living in a college town brings culture as well as crassness.

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