A few months into my role as director of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), I am absorbing as much as I can as fast as I can about this storied institution. I also find myself reflecting on my own very first impressions of art museums, which became important to me as an undergraduate. I began my first year at Vanderbilt University planning to pursue science or math. But I realized that if I majored in English, reading literature—my favorite activity—could be the basis of my studies. Then, on a whim, I took an introductory art history course. The professor sent us to the art museum, and I never looked back.
Growing up, I wasn’t a museumgoer, so this experience was new to me. During a class visit to Vanderbilt’s Fine Arts Gallery I was mesmerized by a group of Italian Renaissance paintings. I was even more mystified by how they got there, until I learned about the remarkable collector Samuel H. Kress, who distributed his vast collection to museums across the country in hopes of creating opportunities for eye-opening experiences like mine.
An essay assignment brought me to the Carl Van Vechten Gallery at nearby Fisk University, where I was thrilled by the works of American modernists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley and Aaron Douglas. A classmate and I spent the afternoon seated before Douglas’ Building More Stately Mansions, a landmark of African-American art, discussing our amazement that Douglas’ simple geometry and color palette could yield not only a celebration of major monuments of human civilization but also recognize and laud the human labor responsible for building them.
Just as I found whole worlds within novels and poems, I was astonished to find the ever-unfolding meanings and associations that emerged from looking closely at a work of art. The joy of prolonged observation, of seeing ever more detail over time and becoming fluent in the visual language of art, was transformative. Knowing that someone, somewhere, made these remarkable objects felt like a direct connection across time and place.
To me, the space of the museum seemed that of a “more stately mansion,” so aspirational, so purposeful—there specifically to show great art and welcome people to share in its wonder. I came to know that some stories are told especially well through exhibitions and that understanding history and human creation in three dimensions is different from reading about it in a book. The art informed all I was learning—and not only in the art history classes that brought me to the museum in the first place. It resonated with nearly every one of my courses and extracurricular activities, seemingly venturing into all parts of my education and my intellectual life.
Such formative experiences as an undergraduate have been guiding principles throughout my career in college and university art museums. I have never ceased to be surprised by the limitless potential to connect art to any and every academic discipline. At WCMA, these connections are vivid and vibrant in Object Lab installations and during class sessions with original art works in the Rose Study Gallery.
College and university museums are at their best when activated by the curiosity and creativity of students. I love discussing with Williams students the magic of the museum experience, the role of art in society and the contribution of museums as public institutions. We talk about the unique role WCMA can play in this arts-rich region and about the importance for museums everywhere to become ever more diverse and inclusive. We talk about how leadership in the arts will change over time and how WCMA can help prepare future leaders. And we think about how we might use the lessons of this museum’s long and influential history to chart a future of meaningful impact.
As I envision what I want to build moving forward—and as I imagine what WCMA can be and offer—I am thinking a lot about what brings people to art museums and why people make art and museums part of their lives. Their paths and passions are varied, and college museums play a major role. For some students, they are familiar spaces. For others, like me, museums are uncharted territory, discovered when that first professor sends them off to complete that first assignment. Whatever the path, WCMA can be the place where students learn to care about museums.
WCMA is for everyone. It’s the college’s museum. It’s open to all: students, professors, staff members, community members, visitors from afar. It’s a place for all visitors—students especially—to return to, again and again, where together we can create community and engage in conversations that will help shape our futures and inspire us all to live lives touched by art.
Pamela Franks is the Class of 1956 Director of the Williams College Museum of Art.