In 1873, George Fisk Comfort, the first dean of Syracuse University’s College of Fine Arts, secured several thousand dollars to purchase a series of plaster casts for use in the classroom. The classical sculpture replicas served as objects of study and visual reference for the first baccalaureate students of studio art in the nation.
It was an auspicious beginning for the University’s art collection, which today comprises over 45,000 prints, paintings, photographs, sculptures, decorative objects and more—a visual learning laboratory that became known as the SU Art Galleries.
In spring 2020, amid a pandemic and a modern world Comfort could not have imagined, the collection and galleries were reintroduced as the Syracuse University Art Museum , ushering in a new era of art education and cultural sustenance for the campus community. The museum’s new name and look are the culmination of a strategic initiative and directional shift approved by the Board of Trustees in February.
But what’s in a name? While the terms “museum” and “galleries” might seem interchangeable, designation as a museum better conveys the significance of the collection and its importance as an artistic and cultural hub of campus life. Located on the ground floor of the Shaffer Art Building at the eastern edge of the Quad, the Syracuse University Art Museum hosts regular displays, rotating exhibitions and related events.
The new nomenclature also expresses some important educational distinctions. “As a teaching museum, we use our extensive art collection to promote original research and interdisciplinary thinking. We see ourselves as a museum-laboratory for exploration, experimentation and discussion,” says Vanja Malloy, director of the museum. “At its core, the museum is an educator.” Art collections, exhibitions and programming serve as an expansive complement to the University’s academic programs in museum studies, visual and performing arts and art history. Students in a variety of other disciplines—writing, architecture, earth and environmental sciences, languages—as well as Renée Crown University Honors Program courses and the CAS 101 First-Year Forum, come to the museum to gain an awareness of visual literacy and nonverbal communication.
For students of all levels at the University, the museum promotes an awareness of art in daily life—an endeavor that can be traced far into the past at Syracuse.
After Crouse College opened in 1889, a museum gallery was established for the presentation of the University’s artwork—mostly paintings and plaster casts, among them the aforementioned collection. This display space formed the basis of a concerted effort to place works of art in classroom buildings and libraries, where they would become part of daily life for students. Today, numerous works of public art are accessible to the campus community: The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (Ben Shahn, 1967), Six Curved Walls (Sol LeWitt ’49, 2004) and Oracle’s Tears (Rodger Mack, 1999) are just a few that are located on the Quad or other outdoor areas.
The commitment to making the University’s art accessible for viewing underscores a belief in the importance of the visual arts to understanding the world from a variety of perspectives. In keeping with this belief, the new art museum calendar presents events that address art in many contexts.
For example, on October 6, museum curator David Prince and associate professor of biology Susan Parks presented a Virtual Art Talk about the impact of COVID-19 on the earth’s marine environment. In “Bane or Benefit? COVID-19 and the Environment,” Parks explored the sonic effect of commercial shipping and nearshore recreational boating on undersea life from a scientific and biological point of view. Prince addressed the topic from a visual perspective using art from the permanent collection, such as Berenice Abbott’s photograph Lobster Traps on Mantinicus Island, Maine, circa 1965. “These opportunities help forge new alliances across campus and enable participants to experience the inherently interdisciplinary nature of art,” says Malloy.
The museum’s virtual events include innovative new programming with holistic, hands-on—and possibly unexpected—ways to engage. On October 16, Fritz Horstman, education director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, goes online to lead a workshop where participants of all ages can create leaf creatures inspired by Josef Albers’ collages of the 1940s. And on November 17, the museum hosts “Wellness at the Museum” with Jennifer DeLucia, director of the new creative arts therapy program offered in the College of Visual and Performing Arts . Malloy says the workshop is designed for participants to connect with a sense of hope, joy and beauty through exploration of selected works and participation in an art-making experience focused on wellness and self-care.
Events like these are important because, in addition to providing an aesthetic and academic experience, the museum is a place of engagement. “This is your museum,” Malloy says. “It recognizes and promotes the role of art in mindfulness and wellness.”
This concept is powerfully illustrated in the museum’s virtual exhibitions offering new interpretations of the University’s permanent collection. Being Human includes many works that have never been on view (such as Ricardo Carpani’s La Lucha, 1968) and a number of recent acquisitions by diverse contemporary artists (for example, Ivan Forde’s The Fall of Man, 2012, and Kreshonna Keane’s Reflection, 2020). A departure from a traditional presentation of works chronologically or geographically, the exhibition challenges the expected form of the portrait, including juxtaposed documentary photographs, abstract art, and utilitarian objects to capture the essence of what it means to be human. In October, One World: Diverse Landscapes presents selected paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures depicting rural and urban environments to show landscapes as a uniting theme despite differences in geography, period, style and technique.
Malloy is exploring new approaches to future programming, collaborating with the Office of Institutional Research to conduct a survey of students, faculty, staff, and the wider community on what they’d like to see at the museum. “We will be focused on using metrics to better understand how our museum should evolve and what we, as a community, want it to be,” she says. In addition, the museum has migrated to an entirely new and advanced collections management database system to document details of the permanent collection, past and future exhibitions, and course displays. The searchable online database, eMuseum, will be available soon and will make the museum’s extensive collection much more accessible to all online.
To support these ambitious efforts, the Syracuse University Art Museum is now part of The Fund for Syracuse and was included in Boost the ’Cuse: Syracuse University’s Day of Giving on October 1. In addition, the museum is now eligible to receive support through The Hill Society, which recognizes donors who support the University’s highest priorities through unrestricted annual gifts at a leadership level. Malloy says giving to the museum will support teaching, fund exhibitions, enable acquisitions of works by underrepresented artists, and provide an array of educational programs and opportunities.
Malloy, who has been with Syracuse University for just over a year, is pleased with the museum’s evolution, despite unprecedented challenges resulting from the outbreak of COVID-19. Previously curator of American art at Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum, Malloy received her education in art history and museums at Duke University, Sotheby’s Institute of Art and the University of London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, and served as the Chester Dale Fellow in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As the second director of SU Art Galleries and the first director of the Syracuse University Art Museum, Malloy enthusiastically embraces the opportunity to bring the campus and community together by using art to inspire discussion and uplift us during a difficult time. “We are working together to change the museum for a changing world.”