James Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum since 2009, has launched a number of initiatives to position the museum as an educational and enlightening resource for both students and other visitors. He is a passionate advocate for university museums and “the power of art to shape life experience and build community.”
What do you see as the museum’s role within and beyond campus?
Our primary commitment is to engaging every Princeton student in the experience of great works of art in the original, whether in the classroom; in structured experiences outside the classroom as interns, research assistants, or student guides; as a social destination during Late Thursdays or other programs; or as a place for quiet contemplation. Increasingly we’re working to engage with the widest possible range of disciplines, from art and archaeology to Latin American studies to civil engineering to aesthetic neuroscience, which examines the brain's response to beauty. Reaching beyond campus, the museum is one of the most important and accessible gateways to the University and its brain trust, serving as a portal for local and regional communities and for visitors from around the world.
How does the art museum benefit Princeton students?
As arguably both the nation’s best liberal arts college and a great research university, Princeton is in the business of shaping tomorrow’s leaders. An appreciation of great art and visual literacy are not only essential skills in themselves, but there are many ways in which a museum like ours, with comprehensive global collections, helps prepare our students to be good citizens and leaders. Close study of original works of art hones critical thinking skills; affords insights into cultures, times, and peoples wholly different from our own; and awakens empathy—taking us beyond our direct experience to understand what connects us in a wider, shared humanity. And as we have done from the museum’s foundation, we continue to help shape the leaders of our own discipline, preparing students to be art historians and museum curators and directors.
What aspect of the museum makes you particularly proud?
Our collections of over 80,000 works of art are at the core of the museum and are one of the University’s most precious resources. The first work of art came to Princeton in 1754, making this one of the oldest art collections in North America—with a history almost as old as the University itself. In their expansiveness, ours are among very few university-based collections that truly span the globe, and the quality of these holdings is phenomenal. Many visitors are stunned to discover that the art in our galleries holds its own with the world’s great museums, and that our collections of Pre-Columbian art, Chinese painting, and photography, to name but three, are widely regarded as among the best in the nation—even if what you see in the galleries is only perhaps 5 percent of our holdings.
What is the most satisfying element of your work?
I first worked as a curator, although I’ve now been a museum director for 15 years. I’m often asked if I miss curating, but I say that in point of fact I still curate, only now instead of curating objects and exhibitions, I curate people—by which I mean I focus on building teams of staff, volunteers, and benefactors to enable the museum’s work. I am blessed with amazing people around me, from an incredibly talented staff, to exceptional colleagues across the University, to alumni around the world who support what we do and bring so much wisdom and insight. I’m also so fortunate that from time to time I can get in the classroom and dig deep into the history of art with students who challenge me to be better at what I do.
What do you hope visitors gain from a trip to the art museum?
One of the most important things about a university art museum is the opportunity for students and faculty to build relationships with individual works of art—to keep coming back to the same masterpiece and find in it new depths of meaning and resonance. In that spirit, I hope visitors make this museum their own—looking closely and opening themselves to the capacity that great works of art have to help you see the world in new ways. For me personally, Anthony Van Dyck’s The Mocking of Christ is such a work, a masterpiece of compassion for human suffering—but the point is to make your own relationship with a work of art, and discover how it changes along with your own life experience.