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Art collection a mainstay at College since its founding

Arts Editor

Published: Monday, January 17, 2011

Updated: Monday, January 17, 2011 18:01

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Archives and Special Collections

Vassar’s art collection has been a centerpiece of the College’s commitment to education. Vassar’s early art collections included many plaster casts of well-known sculptures, such as the one pictured above.

Vassar's art collection has served for many years as the backbone behind both the Studio Art and Art History Departments. While other schools boasted their own art collections at the time, Vassar was the first to include in its architectural plan a physical space dedicated specifically to art. Thus, from its inception in 1864, the gallery helped establish Vassar as an institution intrinsically founded on what Matthew Vassar described as the "bold educational force" of art.

The collection that now makes up the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center (FLLAC) has no doubt evolved, moved and grown over the years; however, an emphasis on art as a tool for instruction remains a constant. As a testament to this, Mary-Kay Lombino, the Emily Hargroves Fisher '57 and Richard B. Fisher curator and assistant director for strategic planning at the FLLAC, said, "It is my opinion and the opinion of many people at the museum that any discipline can be enhanced by teaching with objects. We hope to promote that idea."

Before the gallery could begin its legacy as a critical curricular component for any department, Matthew Vassar had to first address what pieces would comprise the collection. To make this decision, he enlisted the College's Board of Trustees. According to James Mundy, the Anne Hendricks Bass director of the FLLAC, "Then President of the College Milo Jewett had commissioned a woman named Emma Church to paint copies after works by Raphael, Guercino, and other Italian Renaissance and Baroque masters."

The goal was that students studying the visual arts would learn by example as they witnessed a talented artist reproduce great masterpieces. This plan was quickly put to rest, though, as Elias Lyman Magoon, an avid art collector and staunch member of the Art Gallery trustee committee, adamantly opposed the idea of a gallery full of copies.

Magoon's outrage and subsequent threats to quit the board inspired Matthew Vassar to make a special visit to Magoon's Albany estate. It was there that Vassar first saw Magoon's extensive collection of over 3,000 works of original art. Said Mundy, "I think at that point, they came to the arrangement that Vassar would buy Magoon's collection."

In conjunction with the acquisition of his works, Magoon issued a report outlining what he thought was the ideal line-up for an art gallery. "He suggested that there be American classic paintings, of which he had a large number, works on paper of European topographical themes, old master prints, coins and even a suit of armor," explained Mundy, adding, "Those works became the kernel—the nucleus—for what we have today."

After its inception, the gallery functioned exclusively as a complement to training in the fine arts. Appropriately, the first professor of art at Vassar, Henry Van Ingen, was also the first director of the art gallery in 1865. At that time, the gallery was located on the third floor of Main Building.

Around 1880, it moved to Avery Hall, what is now the Volgestein Center for Drama and Film, and remained there until 1915, when it settled in the newly built Taylor Hall.

Charles Pratt, who both funded the construction of Taylor Hall and donated a large number of notable pieces to the gallery, is very much responsible for the collection's great leap forward in 1917. Pratt's gift of 16 Italian Old Master paintings, as well as a large group of Chinese jades, was fundamental in the development of the collection as a key resource for students. This impressive acquisition cemented the collection as a top-notch aid for students' art historical studies. Instead of having to venture to galleries located in nearby metropolises, Vassar's students had access to artistic masterworks at their fingertips.

In 1923, Agnes Ringe came to Vassar as a student, but she would later act as a generous donor of modern and contemporary art to the collection. During her graduate study at Harvard University, she befriended young art enthusiasts such as Henry Russell Hitchcock and Alfred Barr, the latter of which would become the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Ringe's acquaintances introduced her to modern artists, choreographers, composers and photographers—all of which helped set the stage for the over fifty works she would eventually donate to Vassar's collection.

The gallery's mission underwent a significant shift around 1980 with the rise of professionalism among museums and the growth of art as a well-respected academic pursuit. Until that point, the museum was strictly tied to the Art Department, but quickly thereafter, explained Mundy, "It was thought a better model that the galleries not be so directly answerable to one academic department because they were meant for the whole campus and the rest of the community."

After becoming independent, the collection moved to its current location in 1993 with the help of a gift from 1928 graduate, Frances Lehman Loeb. Since then, the collection has continued to evolve as a dynamic accompaniment to Vassar's curriculum. According to Lombino, "We serve a dual mission. One of them is certainly to serve the student body, the faculty and all departments. The other is to serve as the encyclopedic museum of the Hudson Valley region."

One long-term trend the museum is working to address is a movement toward non-Western art. Said Mundy, "We saw Asian Studies taking off and becoming more established. We saw more teaching of Asian art and culture in different departments on campus. It was clear that we should be really responsive to that."

The collection is currently undergoing considerable organizational changes as the museum gears up for its post-renovation and sesquicentennial reopening, which will take place on Jan. 20. One part of the museum's new plan is an orientation gallery, which will function as an ode to the collection's rich history. "We're looking at the way the collection has been used over the years as a teaching tool. We're looking at how alumnae have been involved by giving works over the years, and then of course we continue to look at the art historical narrative," explained Lombino.

As for the rest of the gallery, visitors should expect to see some of the collection's staples, but should also look forward to a number of pieces that have never been on view. Though many surprises are in store, one thing is for sure: "I don't think there will be anything in its former position," revealed Mundy. The hope is that with such rearrangement of the galleries, visitors might greet their old favorites with a completely new perspective; that the collection might garner the same power Magoon described in his 1864 report—to "illustrate the loftiest principles and refine the most delighted hearts."

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