Great article in the New York Times (March 31st) on the numerous Williams graduates who head up major museums. The occassion for the article is the retirement of James Wood ’63 from the Art Institute of Chicago, but the major focus is “how such a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts could have produced so formidable a group.”


The two conclusion seems to be, teachers are the most important cause:
“It’s something of a mystery how this all happened, even now, but if I had to single out one factor, maybe it was that we had teachers who really wanted to teach,” Mr. Wood said as he sat in his office near Lake Michigan on a recent morning. “They weren’t anti-intellectual, but this was not a situation where you buy yourself a three-piece suit in your freshman year, start to cultivate an English accent and then go to work at a museum. These were great personalities, real role models, and at that age you’re very impressionable.”

And second, resources are a contributing factor:
“Using the resources of the two outstanding small museums in Williamstown, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and the Williams College Museum of Art, they kindled similar emotions in many students.”

Strangely, the article downplays networking as a cause for such widespread influence. Here are three such passages:
“The term “Williams Mafia” suggests that this was a tightly knit phalanx of like-minded figures. In fact, its members are quite different from one another.”

and

“A lot of us didn’t come into much contact until after we left Williams,” said Mr. Powell of the National Gallery, a 1966 graduate who was the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before moving to Washington.

and

“They come from curatorial backgrounds, working their way up from associate curator to chief curator and director,” said Michael Auping, the chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and a graduate of California State University at Fullerton. “When they became directors, they were chosen because of their knowledge of art.”

I find this conclusion a little hard to believe. Given that the people quoted in the story are so devoted to their professors, one would think that professors would put promising students in touch with the heads of museums. The article offers only one piece of evidence to support such a hypothesis (“Just last month, Mr. Wood named one of them, James Rondeau, who received his master’s degree in art history from Williams in 1994, as the Art Institute’s curator of contemporary art”), but it is buried at the end of the article and after a section on how business backgrounds are taking over the museum industry. While amazing teachers are certainly a contributing factor to the undo influence Williams had/has over the art world, one would think that networking plays an important role as well.

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