MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – A new exhibition opening at the Middlebury College Museum of Art will showcase the remarkable transformation of Middlebury’s permanent collection over five decades. “50/50: Collecting for the Middlebury College Museum of Art” opens Friday, January 25, and features 50 objects—one acquired in each year of the collection’s existence.
In 1968, a gift from the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation funded both the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Building and the establishment of a permanent art collection at Middlebury. When the new building opened in October of that year, it was home to the Art History, Studio Art, and Music Departments. In the center of the building stood the distinctive 30-foot high gallery space, complete with wood paneling and movable fabric-covered panels. In its early years, the gallery hosted up to 10 exhibitions per year, changing every four to five weeks.
“In those days, the 1970s, the collection was quite small, so the College relied on these small, changing exhibitions to bring vitality to what was going on at Middlebury and to augment the academic program at the College,” said Richard Saunders, director of the Middlebury College Museum of Art. “So it was very difficult then to put on an ongoing sequence of exhibitions from the permanent collection, which is no longer the case.”
From its modest launch, the collection has grown over the decades to nearly 6,000 objects ranging from antiquities to contemporary art. The current museum opened in 1992 in what is now the Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts.
|Slide Show: Selected images from “50/50: Collecting for the Middlebury College Museum of Art”|
Among the objects to be shown in the upcoming exhibit is one of the most important early photographs of the moon, which Saunders learned about from a friend in 1989. The 1851 daguerreotype by John Adams Whipple was taken at the Harvard Observatory and offered an unusually high-quality image for the time period.
Other items reflect the eclectic nature Middlebury’s collection: a 19th-century Kongo-Vili Power Figure, a 1995 Polaroid diptych by the American photographer Dawoud Bey, and a 1643 still-life oil on canvas by the Italian painter Anna Stanchi.
“I think the collection is incredibly varied at this point, and it reflects the interests of lots of different people who have taught at Middlebury, who have been students at Middlebury, who are generous alumni of Middlebury, and people who just lived in Vermont and had a collection of interest that they thought should be here,” said Saunders.
The permanent collection has always focused on teaching and research opportunities for students and faculty, says Saunders.
“What I’m always thinking about as museum director is, ‘How can we connect faculty and students with the objects that are already in the museum? How can we connect to larger events of national or international importance?’”
Saunders saw just such an opportunity with the approaching centennial of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. He proposed an exhibit to Amy Morsman, a history professor who teaches about women in American history. Morsman liked the idea and built it into her first-year seminar last fall, integrating research on 50 early-20th-century photos of women from the museum’s collection. The collaboration will result in a new exhibition at the museum in 2019 called Votes for Women, where the label texts will all be written by Morsman’s students.
“There’s a feeling of investment, I would say, when faculty and students get involved in the process,” said Saunders. “With each passing year the museum does a better job of reaching out to an even greater breadth of the academic curriculum. Increasingly we’ve sought to connect the dots so that Middlebury College students realize that the museum is not just a home to students who are art history majors, but rather that it gives them access to a different world as well.”
The public is invited to an opening reception for the new exhibit on Friday, January 25, from 5:30–7 p.m. Refreshments will be served and Saunders will offer remarks at 6 p.m.
By Stephen Diehl; Images courtesy Middlebury College Museum of Art