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So, the recent thread on the Williams College Museum of Art has piqued my curiosity. I have visited the museum several times, and was duly impressed. It is a beautiful space, well-run, well-endowed, and obviously well-utilized by the college and the community. There were numerous comments that pointed out the ways in which this is so, but one in particular (by occasional commenter and Williams Art History major, Suz), gave me the understanding of just how vital the museum is as a center of learning, not only to the art program at Williams, but to the local schools as well. She says:

I think there are about 10 grade school tours a week and about 30 undergraduate tour guides. Also every 101/102 class at Williams makes extensive use of WCMA. I was even able to write for my first publication through WCMA, namely through my class with Prof. Gerrard on fakes and a related show at WCMA. WCMA is a huge resource for the college and for the surrounding community. Its closing would be the equivalent of closing all of the chem labs and telling all of the chemistry students to just get by on lectures and theory, then expecting them to go out and work in a top lab or in a top graduate program.

And, over at WCMA’s website, I see this same idea clearly stated in the “History” of the museum:

Karl Weston, the museum’s founder and first director, established the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) in 1926 to provide Williams College students with the opportunity for firsthand observation of fine works of art, a privilege he maintained was essential to the study of art. 

And later, former student, Lane Faison, carried on in Weston’s footsteps, adding to the museum’s collection, expanding the faculty of the art department, and enriching the program to the extent that it has produced some of the most highly regarded curators and art historians in the country. But that is another story, and one with which most of you are familiar.

What I am interested in exploring here, is the museum, the role it has played for students, visitors, and community members. And, of course, the art within. Suz also mentioned “how utterly priceless” is their permanent collection . (I will try and post an image from the collection every now and then, just for a bit of visual enjoyment.)

So, any comments are welcome, whether they be of memories of a visit to the museum, an art class experience, anecdotes about the rich history of art at the college, or just about art in general. Anything goes.

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#1 Comment By sophmom On April 3, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

The painting above, is by Camille Pissarro, and was a bequest to WCMA by Governor Herbert H. Lehman, Class of 1899.

#2 Comment By Parent ’12 On April 3, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

This is wonderful. I look forward to more “visuals” from WCMA’s collection at the top o’ the page to stimulate conversation & memories.

I’ve always been impressed by the exhibits they curate. They’re thought-provoking. Academic in a way that draws one in. Recently there was a photography show tied to ethnography.

Because of your Varnedoe series I’m putting a link to a Pollock restoration show that was there a couple years ago. There are pictures imbedded with the press release.

The exhibit was small but impressive. It brought back memories of MOMA’s Pollock retrospective.


#3 Comment By sophmom On April 3, 2009 @ 5:14 pm

P ’12:

That’s a great link. I remember reading about the Pollock show when doing the Varnedoe series, but didn’t see those great visuals of the conservation in action.

I do recall being intrigued by how the show came about; that the Williamstown Art Conservation Center was commissioned to do work on one Pollock painting, but asked for two more as reference material, which then became the opportunity for a small exhibition. Is that correct?

I have always thought that art conservation would make for a fascinating career. I would like to visit WACC and see their facilities and work in progress.

(BTW, don’t anyone mention to DK that according to Wikipedia, Pissarro was selling for 2 to 4 million by 2005. I can only imagine the cry for “sell, sell, sell!”)

#4 Comment By David On April 3, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

1) Like Parent ’12, I also like these art posts.

2) I would be curious about how WCMA compares to the art museums at other liberal arts colleges. Is our collection smaller or larger than Bowdoins? Is our budget bigger or smaller than Wellesley’s? Are our exhibits more impressive (however measured) than Amherst’s? Needless to say, I know nothing about this.

#5 Comment By Suz On April 3, 2009 @ 6:02 pm

David: If you know nothing about something, maybe you shouldn’t say anything?

Also who cares? The question should be: are they serving Williams and the surrounding community adequately?

#6 Comment By frank uible On April 3, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

Suz: In my experience, David can’t be controlled, ordered, overcome, changed, ignored, deterred, shut up, blunted, deflected, corrected, directed, redirected, retired, philibustered, intimidated, moderated, ostracized, influenced, distracted, rationalized, furloughed (for long) or wheedled. But he can be killed with kindness.

#7 Comment By Parent ’12 On April 3, 2009 @ 10:14 pm


With a warm heart I suggest you visit the museums on your list. I’ve never been to Bowdoin’s or Wellesley’s. As I recall, you live in the Greater Boston area so Wellesley is not that far. I’d love to read your reaction.

Or, what are your memories of WCMA when you were a student? Clearly it’s a restructured space. Do you know when that occurred?

#8 Comment By David On April 4, 2009 @ 12:03 am

Suz: Well, I care. If you don’t care, no worries. But I hope you won’t be offended if someone answers my questions. “[Y]ou shouldn’t say anything,” does not strike me as a very Williams attitude.

Parent ’12: In the best of all possible worlds, I am sure it would be fun to visit all those museums, but, alas, life is busy. I did stop in at the Clark the last time I was at Williams.

I have the vaguest sense that WCMA did some major building in the 90’s. My memories are limited to meeting there for ARTH 101-102 sections, poorly taught by a masters student.

#9 Comment By W ’05 On April 4, 2009 @ 12:43 am

David: WCMA is generally considered near the top, if not the best, of the NESCAC art museums. Bowdoin just opened a spectacular new Museum building (a better space than wcma), but their collection is not as good as ours. Middlebury and Amherst gave good spaces, but again the collections aren’t as good as ours. The rest (although I haven’t been to Wellesley’s) aren’t as impressive. Smith has a great Museum with a great collection as well, it should be noted.

WCMA distinguishes itself in several ways. First, it has a scholar that is the premier authority on one artist (always a plus in a Museum’s reputation): Nancy Mowll Mathews, who wrote the catalogue raisonne on Maurice Prendergast (and is also an expert on Mary Cassatt and other major figures in American painting). Secondly, it has A+ (meaning images that come to mind when thinking of that artist’s work) pieces in its collection. Hopper’s “Morning in the City” is the obvious one, but Grant Wood’s “Death on the Ridge Road” and and several of Walker Evans (who is an alum)’s photographs come to mind as well.

Thirdly (and this is more related to the post above), because the Museum is in the same building as the Art department, professors spend time teaching material by taking students up into the galleries whenever possible. My first semester freshman year I went to see the Assyrian reliefs (as part of a comp lit class, strangely enough). Sophomore year I had to describe a Philip Pearlstein painting for a ARTH 102 assignment, which took me to the modern and contemporary galleries. My junior year I became obsessed with a Kara Walker installation that WCMA put on. Walker has gone on to become one of the major figures in contemporary art. My senior year I wrote an article for the Record on John Currin’s show at the Whitney, and WCMA Director Linda Schearer wrote me an email saying how she enjoyed my review and inviting me to her office to discuss his work.

The influence of WCMA as a space, a collection, and a teaching tool was tremendous for me, and for one of the 70+ Art History Majors (a really astounding number, when compared to other institutions) in my class. I hope it continues to be something that undergrads, alums, locals, and tourists enjoy.

#10 Comment By Suz On April 4, 2009 @ 1:05 am

W ’05: I’m pretty sure Walker was fairly well known by the time there was the WCMA show. I remember seeing her in the Whitney Biennial in …97? I think. Also by the end of that show I couldn’t even go in that room even though I was a tour guide. Nevermind the fact that three separate classes of mine went to see it.

And Frank: Yes, I know. I needed to get that off my chest just once. Although I am personally sticking to commenting on the things I actually know: libraries and art.

#11 Comment By frank uible On April 4, 2009 @ 1:10 am

When I visited Bowdoin’s museum several years ago, in my view its collection compared well to Williams’. Colby has a large new wing to its museum built in part to house a major collection given a few years ago. I plan to revisit the Colby museum this coming September to take a squint at the collection – the museum is located right next to the football field, and a visit can act as a complement to or substitute for tailgating.

#12 Comment By sophmom On April 4, 2009 @ 3:24 am

Some wonderful background and comments re WCMA. Thanks all.

I am a fan of Kara Walker’s emotionally charged, and beautifully crafted work. It must have been very special to see it exhibited in as intimate a setting as WCMA. Did she make a guest appearance as a speaker as well?

#13 Comment By sophmom On April 4, 2009 @ 3:37 am


I was perusing Bowdoin’s collection online this afternoon (after seeing DK’s comment) and they seem to have a fairly impressive collection of early American paintings…a lot of portraiture. I find their website better lends itself to online viewing than WCMA’s. Again, this was a very quick gander…I will check it out in more detail when I have time.

#14 Comment By frank uible On April 4, 2009 @ 4:32 am

Suz: Personally I love to comment opinionatedly on things I don’t know. In fact the only things I know are those I don’t.

#15 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On April 4, 2009 @ 5:51 am

I think Williams’s collection benefited from judicious purchasing by Faison, Pierson and company over the years. Anyone can pay a lot of money for a good art work; the trick is to buy a representative sample without paying through the nose–and that takes a good eye.

For those into adult education, I would recommend visiting the college art museums in the Northeast. Don’t worry about which one is “better.” The nice part is the collections are good without being overwhelming–and they’re free. You go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, you pay your fee (or better yet, use your membership), and you’re always thinking, “I paid my money, I need to see more.” So you get to the end of the day, and you’re absolutely worn out. As you head back to the car, bedraggled, you think, “Boy, that was a bit too much.”

In one of these college museums, however, you can go in and see the entire collection in several hours. Here, as you head back to the car, you think, “That was refreshing.” It’s sort of like the difference between an unlimited buffet (MFA) and high tea (college museum).

For those north of Boston, I’d recommend a future visit to the museum at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA (generally called “Phillips Andover,” and known as “PA” by the locals). It concentrates on American art, and the collection is small yet superb. The good/bad news is that it’s being renovated at the moment, so it’s closed. But when it reopens the galleries should be larger and better.

#16 Comment By Dick Swart On April 4, 2009 @ 7:07 am

I am sure many classes have a love for the tradition of excellence represented by the WCMA.

The great class of 1956 with, to my memory, no more than eight Art History majors (while not tutorials, it was a very personal experience) highlighted their 50th reunion with a show of members’ own works or holdings, the gift to the WCMA of Sig Balka’s collection of works on paper, Bob Fordyce’s donation of his Frank Lloyd Wright ephemera collection to the Chapin Library, and the endowment of the Directorship of the museum.


#17 Comment By David On April 4, 2009 @ 7:50 am

1) Thanks to all for the background information, especially W ’05. Very interesting and informative. I realize that some might think I was just asking about this as an excuse for generating reasons for cost cutting, but (besides that!) I am honestly interested in, your guessed it, All Things Eph. I had no idea that WCMA was so impressive compared to its peer group.

2) I was surprised by the 70+ number that W ’05 cites for majors in his class (perhaps that includes Studio Art as well), but that number is broadly consistent with the last 5 years as well. I had no idea that Art was the 4th (tied) most popular major at Williams.

3) Seems like my vague memory of major renovation in the 90’s was wrong, or at least not important enough to include in this handy WCMA history.

4) There are 27 people listed as working at WCMA. (You need to enter “Williams College Museum of Art” in the “Department” box.) That’s a big reason for WCMA’s $2+ million budget, but not the whole reason.

5) Williams spends more than 1/3 of what it spends on its entire athletics program (6-7 million) on WCMA. Does WCMA provide more than 1/3 of the benefits to the student body as athletics? Would you rather cut $1 million out of the WCMA budget or $1 million out of athletics? (My (radical) suggestions for cutting the athletic budget do not, I think, save anywhere near $1 million.)

#18 Comment By Dick Swart On April 4, 2009 @ 7:55 am

From Dave:

5) Williams spends more than 1/3 of what it spends on its entire athletics program (6-7 million) on WCMA. Does WCMA provide more than 1/3 of the benefits to the student body as athletics? Would you rather cut $1 million out of the WCMA budget or $1 million out of athletics? (My (radical) suggestions for cutting the athletic budget do not, I think, save anywhere near $1 million.)