Previous Director's Letters

Spring 2017

The Allen Memorial Art Museum opened its doors to the public on June 12, 1917; this spring, the staff and I are greatly looking forward to inaugurating a more than year-long celebration of that momentous occasion, and invite you to join us. We will mark the anniversary day itself with a community event featuring birthday cake and gallery viewing, but will kick off our festivities earlier, on May 4, when the museum will host this year’s Harold Jantz Memorial Lecture. It will be given by Dr. Arthur Wheelock of the National Gallery of Art, who worked with Professor Wolfgang Stechow and Professor (and AMAM director) Charles Parkhurst, both of whom were instrumental in the AMAM’s academic and public outreach from the 1940s to the 1970s.

The AMAM’s history will be a particular feature of the exhibitions of academic year 2017–18, but this spring’s provide the perfect lead-in, through both new temporary shows and longer-term reinstallations that call attention to the encyclopedic nature of our important collections.

The two exhibitions organized with artist Fred Wilson, Wildfire Test Pit and Fred Wilson: Black to the Powers of Ten, continue to inspire visitors while garnering national press attention, while our Native American, Islamic, Asian, Ancient, and African holdings are all presented in new ways. A particular highlight is the new African installation, curated by Oberlin College students of Assistant Professor Matt Rarey. My colleagues and I are grateful to alumnus Robert Rotberg, who several years ago set up the Robert Rotberg ’55 and Fiona J.Y. Rotberg ’90 Endowed African Art and Sculpture Fund, which is being used for the first time to support this new installation and its manifold teaching opportunities.

Our many donors, indeed, are integral to the museum’s success, and to honor them our staff installed, in October, a donor recognition screen near our administrative offices. Designed by Megan Harding, it features scrolling lists of supporters—those who donate much-needed funds as well as those who give generously of their time and expertise through service on our Volunteer Guild and Visiting Committee—interspersed with images of works in the collection, including new acquisitions.

Many acquisitions are made by the museum each year, most as gifts from generous donors. The AMAM received an important bequest from the Louis and Annette Kaufman Trust in 2016 that greatly expands our holdings of works by Milton Avery—a friend of the Kaufmans, who were his first collectors—and includes works by other American artists. Louis and Annette Kaufman—a gifted violinist and pianist, respectively—did not attend Oberlin, but each received an honorary degree from the college in 1985 and began a relationship with the AMAM that continued until Mrs. Kaufman’s death at 101 in January 2016. I had the honor of meeting her on two occasions, and of hearing from her about their exciting careers and passion for collecting. In addition to works by Avery, their extremely generous bequest includes works by Leonard Baskin, David Burliuk, Jean Charlot, Warrington Colescott, Mae Engron, Chaim Gross, James Gill, Benjamin Kopman, David Park, Betye Saar, Raphael Soyer, Walter Stein, and James Weeks, as well as many pieces of personally illustrated correspondence from artists including Milton, Sally, and March Avery, Man Ray, and Mark Rothko. Among 12 paintings by Milton Avery that they donated are two portraits of Mrs. Kaufman; the one shown here was to be used as publicity for concert engagements.

Donors with a collection such as the Kaufmans’ may be rare, but enthusiastic supporters of the AMAM and its educational mission are not. The staff and I thank you for being among them, and hope to celebrate the past century of the AMAM’s programs and outreach with you during the coming year.

Andria Derstine
John G.W. Cowles Director


Fall 2016

With his seminal 1992-93 Mining the Museum project at the Maryland Historical Society, the artist Fred Wilson launched what became known as his “interventions” in museum collections: he manipulates, combines, and contrasts works, creating new contexts for – and thus new interpretations of – them, leading visitors to more nuanced understandings of their meanings. This academic year, the AMAM is honored to partner with Wilson on not one but two exhibitions; one, Wildfire Test Pit, follows this premise. Using works from the AMAM collection – including plaster casts that date to the museum’s opening in 1917 – and loans from neighboring partners, Wilson engages visitors with art that poses questions about time, memory, exclusion, and redemption in a setting both interactive and inviting of contemplation. This project has been several years in the making; in 2008, Wilson’s work was first exhibited at the AMAM, and since a visit by the artist to the museum in early 2013 we discussed the possibility of collaborating more closely. Continuing a tradition of presenting new work by contemporary artists, it is thus all the more exciting that the AMAM is also exhibiting a selection of Wilson’s works from 2003 to 2014 that similarly deal with issues of race and remembrance – as well as display practices – in Fred Wilson: Black to the Powers of Ten.

As with all AMAM exhibitions, both will be integrated into college classes and tours, where we expect their themes to resonate strongly with students, faculty, and our broader public. And as the AMAM’s exhibitions this year are linked by the theme of “Time” it is especially fitting that Wilson’s exhibitions not only deal with issues of contemporary importance, but also integrate works from the museum’s earliest days while unflinchingly engaging with issues of race and discrimination that are fundamental aspects of Oberlin College’s own history. I am deeply grateful to the many donors who have contributed funds towards these exhibitions, including significant support from Agnes Gund.

Time’s inexorable movement has been much on my mind as the staff and I prepare for the AMAM’s centennial, which will be celebrated during 2017-18. We’ve had the chance this year to help a sister institution, the Cleveland Museum of Art, founded in 1916, mark its own such milestone, through the loan from May through July of the AMAM’s important Barnett Newman painting Onement IV as part of the CMA’s Centennial Loans program. One of the joys of museum work is the chance to loan to other institutions, where works can be appreciated by different eyes in new contexts.

Another joy, of course, is to receive. This semester the AMAM has the happy opportunity of exhibiting Mondrian’s Abstraction (1939-42), generously loaned by the Kimbell Art Museum. While the AMAM, whose collection is known for works created by artists early in their careers, has the artist’s 1904 Brabant Farmyard, it does not have a work in the style for which Mondrian is best known. Displaying these works side by side gives us an exciting educational opportunity to contrast these two aspects of his practice.

None of the programs and accomplishments detailed in this newsletter would be possible without the AMAM’s stellar staff. After five years in which she has made innovative and significant contributions to our exhibitions and outreach, Denise Birkhofer, Ellen Johnson ’33 Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, leaves us in September for the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto; we will miss her and wish her very well. Other staff changes include Kevin Greenwood’s promotion to Joan L. Danforth Curator of Asian Art, and the addition of Mir Finkelman (OC ’16) to our Office of Academic Programs. I’m enormously grateful to our team – and to you, our visitors – for making possible our wide range of projects and programs. Thank you for your support.

Andria Derstine
John G.W. Cowles Directo


Spring 2016

The Allen Memorial Art Museum has long been a venue for new work by contemporary artists, and indeed has collected works by living artists since opening in 1917. In 1951 director Charles Parkhurst launched the Three Young Americans series of exhibitions, in his words, “to bring to Oberlin exemplary paintings in a contemporary idiom.” The AMAM was well-known for important exhibitions of contemporary artists during the 20th century, and my predecessor Stephanie Wiles oversaw several by living artists during 2005 – 08, prior to the museum’s 2009 – 2011 renovation.

Since becoming director in 2012 I have wanted the AMAM to focus a major exhibition again on the work of a living artist—and to do so periodically—presenting a comprehensive look at his or her body of work. While the museum has excelled in organizing thematic exhibitions over many years, there is much to be gained through sustained examination of the career of a single artist, and through the discovery of work that will present new—and possibly challenging—perspectives, and will likely highlight relationships with our collection. Thus it is very exciting to present the first United States retrospective of the career of Judit Reigl. Now in her nineties, she escaped communist Hungary in 1950 and has lived and worked in and near Paris ever since. Curated by Denise Birkhofer, this overview of Reigl’s works from 1950 to 2012 comprises many of her series, from Surrealism to figuration and abstraction, with a focus on music and corporeality.

I am grateful to Sietske and Herman (OC ’52) Turndorf, who brought Reigl’s work to my attention and offered their support in early 2013, and to Janos Gat, a friend of the Turndorfs and of Reigl, who worked with us to make this idea a reality. I hope you will join us February 4 for the opening event, which will include music, refreshments, and talks celebrating Judit Reigl and her powerful legacy.

Female artists have been of special importance in the AMAM’s exhibition and collecting priorities of late; Pat Steir’s Tall Waterfall, a promised gift, is on view throughout this academic year, and we are delighted that Steir will speak at the museum about her career on March 3. We have made a number of important acquisitions recently of works by women. Among these is a large group of promised gifts from Betty Beer Franklin (OC ’65), including works by Dorothy Dehner, Sonia Delaunay, and Marguerite Zorach; works by Jean Shin, Dayanita Singh, and Anna von Mertens from Driek (OC ’65) and Michael (OC ’64) Zirinsky; and a vibrant abstract painting that is a donation from Colombian artist Fanny Sanín. 

Jim Dine, too, very generously has recently donated many works to the collection. We thank him for them, and for spending several days at the AMAM in September, installing one of his large-scale assemblages on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his first solo museum show here.

In addition to the groundbreaking Judit Reigl exhibition, we are extremely proud to present A Picture of Health: Art and the Mechanisms of Healing. Curated by Christina Neilson of Oberlin College and Frances Gage of Buffalo State College, the exhibition introduces a unique topic: an examination across cultures and time periods of the ways visual art has been perceived to both effect and affect physical healing, whether through its materiality or its aesthetic properties.

A wide range of programs will accompany this and our other shows, and we hope to see you at them. The museum’s stellar collections and hard-working staff—including those who are behind-the-scenes—are here for you, our visitors and supporters, and my colleagues and I hope you will be as inspired as we are by art’s power to create positive change.

Andria Derstine
John G.W. Cowles Director

Fall 2015

For the past few years, museum offerings have been loosely united under a theme: Religion, Ritual and Performance in 2012–13, Realism in 2013–14, and The Americas in 2014–15. We inaugurate the 2015–16 year with the theme of The Body, and present a wide array of new exhibitions and programs that respond broadly to this subject.

Jim Dine, a groundbreaking artist whose works often evoke the presence or absence of the human body, had his first one-man museum exhibition at the AMAM in 1965, and we look forward to celebrating—with him—the 50th anniversary of that at our September 3 First Thursday. In addition to the presence of one of the world’s most distinguished artists, that evening will be special in that a public conversation with Dine will be the first event in the newly conserved King Sculpture Court.

Our project to clean the historic ceiling and clerestory in this space was completed in the spring, with new lighting installed in summer. We hope you’ll join us at this event and others to come, to experience this central, soaring space the way architect Cass Gilbert intended. We couldn’t be more pleased with the results, and are deeply grateful to the many donors who helped with the completion of these projects, as well as new lighting in the Ripin Gallery.

Just as many donors contributed to our recent infrastructure upgrades, others have continued to support staffing and collections. I’m delighted to announce the endowment, through the generosity of Agnes Gund, Richard Spear, and Athena Tacha, of the museum’s modern and contemporary curatorial position, now the Ellen Johnson ’33 Curatorship of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Over the past several months, other donors have endowed funds to support educational programs; acquisitions of art in memory of Hedy Landman ’53, a former AMAM curatorial assistant; and acquisitions of prints in memory of Paul B. Arnold ’41, a beloved former professor of studio art, and specifically of printmaking. A promised gift of a painting by contemporary artist Pat Steir, on view in the West Ambulatory, also highlights the importance to the museum of gifts of art from generous donors.

Many other works, of course, are newly on view in the exhibitions presented by the museum’s curators and guest curators. And AMAM “guests” also include several artworks on loan, one of which is Monet’s stunning Red Kerchief, in the Stern Gallery. The AMAM collection has two Monets, neither figurative, and so it is especially exciting to have this vision of the artist’s wife visit from the Cleveland Museum of Art while our own important early Monet, Garden of the Princess, Louvre, is on view there.

Besides completing work on the King Sculpture Court and Ripin Gallery, and preparing new exhibitions and programs, many other activities have taken place behind the scenes at the AMAM over the past several months. These include the development of a new logo and the design of a soon-to-launch e-newsletter, visits by numerous researchers, and, of course, sustained and meaningful interaction with the college’s faculty and students and our local public. My colleagues on the museum staff and I hope you, too, will take part in our active roster of events—or that you will simply take advantage of our perennially free admission—and experience the power of original works of art to transform lives.

Andria Derstine
John G. W. Cowles Director


Spring 2015

The Allen Memorial Art Museum is in the midst of a wide range of exciting projects that herald a positive and productive 2015. Our work to restore the beauty, and to enhance the usefulness, of the King Sculpture Court continues apace, with staff from ICA-Art Conservation working daily to clean the historic paintings and plasterwork in this gallery. Their work, coupled with the efforts of others who are assisting us to plan for new lighting in this area, will ensure that for future generations the King Sculpture Court stands as a fitting, and soaring, entrance to all the delights that our museum holds.

The lighting to be installed this year (replacing decades-old fixtures that were poorly adhered, did not conform to current museum standards, and were lacking in energy efficiency) not only will give AMAM staff the capability to properly light the artwork that will adorn the gallery’s walls, perimeter, and central area, but also will provide a gentle glow on the newly cleaned ceiling and clerestory, a feature envisioned by architect Cass Gilbert in 1917, but ultimately not implemented. Importantly, this new lighting will also give us the flexibility to light museum events that are often held in this, our largest space. We anticipate new lighting in our Ripin Gallery, on the museum’s second floor, this year as well, a separate but related project that will ensure suitable illumination for the many works of art—primarily light-sensitive works on paper—that this gallery features. These three projects—the ceiling and clerestory cleaning, the King Sculpture Court lighting, and the Ripin Gallery lighting—have found financial support from many generous donors, for whose gifts I, and my colleagues, feel tremendous gratitude.

Celebrating a historic work of American architecture such as is our Gilbert building is especially appropriate during this academic year, as our curators have focused broadly on the theme of “The Americas” in conceptualizing a variety of exhibitions. New this semester is the first AMAM exhibition to be organized by Kevin Greenwood, the museum’s Joan L. Danforth Assistant Curator of Asian Art. Focusing on the extensive and exceptional group of Japanese woodblock prints collected by Mary A. Ainsworth (OC 1889) during the early 20th century, A Life in Prints: Mary A. Ainsworth and the Floating World fills our Ripin Gallery with a variety of works that exemplify not only the history but also the great visual appeal of this medium. New additions of artworks to our exhibitions of Latin American and early American art will ensure that repeat visitors have fresh experiences with our important collections in these areas. Several new exhibitions, including an off-site collaboration at the Art Department’s Baron Gallery, where works by the artist collective known as assume vivid astro focus (avaf) will be installed, are sure to be both instructive and intriguing.

We were pleased to learn last fall that the museum was successful in its application for a grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation to support curator Andaleeb Banta’s efforts to research and eventually publish our important collection of old master drawings, a project that will involve a collaboration with Buffalo State College for the technical analysis of some of the works. You can read in the Spring 2015 newsletter's centerfold about just a few of the very many activities that AMAM curators undertake in the larger scholarly and museum arenas. And our academic programs and education offices are flourishing, providing Oberlin students, faculty, and the general public with opportunities to engage with our outstanding collection. In the fall 2014 semester, 70 Oberlin faculty used works from the AMAM collection in their teaching, representing 34 academic disciplines. And we are especially looking forward to welcoming this spring acclaimed artists Alfredo Jaar and Edouard Duval-Carrié as part of our First Thursday series—just two of a wide range of public events scheduled this semester.

I hope that you will visit us often over the coming months, to be inspired by the museum’s exceptional collection, to follow the progress in the King Sculpture Court, and to swell the audience for one of our outstanding events. Your presence and support are what continue to inspire us.

Andria Derstine
John G. W. Cowles Director