Fa m i l i a r I I n t i m a c i e s

Making Art A Part Of Life

By Cynthia Nickoloff '88

Every prospective Oberlin student hears that the Allen Memorial Art Museum is one of the best, if not the best, art museums of any liberal arts college in country.

Repeat that statement to the museum's director, Anne Moore, and her usually cordial demeanor seems to rigidify before your eyes.

"If the discussion stops there, then that's nothing but a one liner," she declares. "What does it mean? What does it mean to the education of Oberlin students--now that is the issue."

The AMAM's is indeed one of the finest teaching collections in the world, but Moore isn't content to let the museum or its staff rest on past laurels. She's a zealot for art, and in every conversation about the collection in her care she makes it clear that although she'd like everyone in the world to share her enthusiasm, she'll settle for helping all Oberlin students develop their visual faculties.

"The collection is certainly significant to art majors," says Moore, her expression animating as she warms again to her favorite subject, "but only about 100 students a year major in art. There are approximately 2800 students here; we should be serving many more of them.

"The museum is such a resource that I feel obligated to let them know what we have--to let them use it in the context of their other learning experiences."

Since taking on the AMAM's directorship in 1992, Moore has focused on making the museum and its collection an integral part of the curriculum in both the college and conservatory. A special commission on museum-College relations, formed that same year and comprised of Moore and eight senior faculty members, helped set priorities and parameters for such an undertaking.

Reiterating that the AMAM's first priority is to serve Oberlin students and that its collection has, and must continue to have, an "extraordinary educational value," the commission stressed that the museum is relative to studies in all disciplines. Visual literacy, said the commissioners in their report, is "an essential component of an educated individual."

"One thing we heard a lot of," says Moore, "was that students and faculty needed more information, as well as freedom, to come into the museum. Access, of course, they've always had, but I think some students have been intimidated because museums traditionally just put their works out and expect people to 'get it.'"

The AMAM has never been comfortable with that approach, and has for many years maintained a comprehensive program of public education for students of all ages and backgrounds. Most tours and gallery talks are conducted by the docents, junior and senior art students who spend about 50 hours during Winter Term training to conduct one to two tours or programs each week during the following spring semester.

The success of the museum's public programs has allowed staff members to concentrate on enticing more Oberlin students inside, an effort that got a boost in 1993, when the museum received a $193,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. One of the projects supported by the grant is a comprehensive catalog, the first since 1967, that will be accessible not only in paper, but on the Internet and via CD-ROM, in August 1997.

Several students have contributed to the catalog project, which will include basic information about each piece in the collection, as well as images and scholarly text--contextual and technical information, critical bibliography, provenance, and exhibition history--on about 180 items. Music-technology major Kimberly Serrano '95 and computer-science major David Moxon '96, joined the effort last Winter Term and have stayed on, doing "incredibly exciting things with multimedia--innovating on the way we present and access scholarly information. The catalog will also include information on the history of the museum and its resources, noting student internships, programs, and research opportunities," says Moore.

Will the ability to view works of art on computer screens discourage museum-going? Moore doesn't think so. People who might feel out of their element entering a museum could gradually become accustomed to the idea via their computers, she believes.

"The more people know about art, the more they appreciate it, and the more they will become involved in it."

Increasing access to information by way of computer and print materials will undoubtedly coax some reticent students out of their artless shells and into the museum. But by far the AMAM's most ambitious initiatives have been focused on working with classes from departments that haven't traditionally included visual arts in their syllabi.

There have always been professors from departments other than art who have utilized the museum's resources. Current efforts are an attempt to build on those collaborations. "There have been many informal but really wonderful interdisciplinary projects between the conservatory and the museum, as well as formal ones," says associate dean Kathryn Stuart, who is serving as Dean of the Conservatory of Music during Karen Wolff's sabbatical. One such enterprise occurred in 1986 when Elizabeth Finnegan '87, then a junior art-history major, undertook a Winter Term project to catalog the museum's holdings depicting music [See "Behind the Cover: A Search for an Illustration Reveals a New World of Scholarship," Fall 1986 OAM]. The results of the undertaking are now part of an international database, maintained by Répertoire International dIconographie Musicale (RIdIM), that helps scholars and performers make use of works of art as sources of musical information.

Last fall the conservatory and museum embarked on a long-term relationship--a series of interdisciplinary programs called Images and Sounds: Conversations in the Arts. The first installment in the series--"Images of War: The Human Cry"--involved musical performance, poetry reading, and artistic commentary held in conjunction with the exhibition Images of War: Ritual and Reality, organized by Curator of Western Art Marjorie Wieseman.

"Just as themes of war have been important to visual artists, so have they been to composers," says Stuart. Professors of singing Duane Mahy, soprano, and Gerald Crawford, bass-baritone, and Assistant Professor of Instrumental Accompanying James Howsmon put together a program that included Ned Rorem's setting of Walt Whitman's War Scenes, Claude Debussy's Noël des Enfants, and Charles Ives's Tom Sails Away. The exhibition included works by artists ranging from Hans Burgkmair the Elder to Roy Lichtenstein, from Howling Wolf to Ernst Kirchner.

Wieseman, Assistant Professor of Musicology Claudia MacDonald, and Professor of Pianoforte Peter Takàcs are collaborating on the series' third installment--an exploration of artists' interpretations and transformations of another's work--for this coming fall. The exhibit will revolve around quality and technique in printmaking, says Wieseman, examining what constitutes a "good" image and how artists achieve vastly different results working in the same medium. MacDonald will examine excerpts of 19th-century composers' adaptations of Mozart concertos, and Takàcs will explore Franz Liszt's transcriptions of Schubert songs for solo piano.

"The series is evolving as we hoped," says Stuart. "We've been having very intense discussions, and part of what we've discovered is that while we can develop a theme that we can explore through different media, it's impossible to match the media exactly. There are similarities and differences . . . and sometimes the differences may be the more interesting. We hope our collaborations always enlighten and highlight both mediums for the audience."

Monetary support is crucial to interdisciplinary collaboration, and the Mellon grant has been instrumental in funding six interdisciplinary projects that have involved the English, theater and dance, religion, politics, and history departments and the environmental-studies program. But financing isn't the only obstacle museum staff and faculty must overcome. Both professors and curators must be motivated to investigate what Moore calls "intellectual interrelatedness." Moreover, a professor and a curator must be focused on similar areas--or be willing and able to redirect their research energies.

Donald R. Longman Professor of English David Young didn't have to contend with the latter because, as he explains, he has "a long history of thinking about the interplay between the arts." While researching Yeats--his book Troubled Mirror: A Study of Yeats's "The Tower" was published in 1987--and translating Rilke, both of whom had been influenced early in their careers by the symbolist movement and who developed into modernists, Young says he gradually realized that exploring the visual art of the time would enhance his understanding of the poets' writing.

"I had incorporated some discussion of symbolist artists in my classes," he recalls, "but not in any systematic way. The Mellon grant encouraged me to formalize my thinking on the subject."

Young has offered Modern Poetry I: From Symbolism to Imagism twice, both times utilizing the AMAM's superb collection of works by visual artists of the same periods. But the "high point" he says was last fall's course, for which he worked with AMAM curator of modern and contemporary art Amy Kurlander to organize a colloquium and exhibition.

During the colloquium Peter Schmidt of Swarthmore spoke on William Carlos Williams and the visual arts; Edinboro University's Elisabeth Joyce gave a paper on Marianne Moore and the Armory Show; and Young discussed the impact of visual modernism on Wallace Steven's poetry. The exhibition, American Responses to European Modernism 18751925, included works by Degas, Manet, Braque, Modersohn-Becker, and John Marin from the museum's permanent collection.

"I hoped to create a sense of context for modernism in the visual arts that would be sufficient to enable students to go back and forth between literary texts and visual arts with confidence and enthusiasm," says Young. Rather than draw "clumsy parallellisms," he encouraged his students to develop "an increasingly subtle and sophisticated sense of modernist context."

The colloquium provided students with "specific models of how active, working scholars explore the art-literature interface." And the exhibition "was vital in that it enabled them to sample specific works--far preferable to seeing slides or looking at reproductions in books--over a period of time, while they simultaneously explored modernist literary texts."

Young concedes that some of his colleagues approach interdisciplinary programs with wariness. "[They] say that if you bring two disciplines together, you'll get the lowest common denominator. I disagree.

"There is risk involved," he admits. "You can spread yourself too thin, or you can dilute students' expertise. But some areas, the large movements like symbolism, invite this type of approach. Romanticism is another example."

Evidence that students wholeheartedly accepted the invitation showed in their final papers, many of which explored the art-literature interface "with remarkable skill and insight," says Young. His initial impression that one, a study of the relationship between Rilke and Balthus, "was very close to being publishable," was recently borne out when its author, Theresa Giron '96, learned that the interdisciplinary journal Mosaic had accepted a revised version of her paper for publication. Although Giron had only a limited background in art history, she produced original analyses of Balthus paintings that were clearly illuminated by the context of Rilkean and symbolist influence, says her proud teacher.

Hers was "the most striking example of a general command of modernism" demonstrated by many students in the class, says Young. As the semester proceeded class discussions often veered into other areas, such as music and architecture. They became "more and more able to draw on a broadening sense of the way modernism had influenced all the arts and reshaped human values," an ability that grew directly from their having "significant opportunities to go beyond the normal disciplinary boundaries."

Recalling her student days at Columbia--in the era of course requirements--Moore describes being "forced" beyond normal disciplinary boundaries when she had to take an astronomy course. "I suffered through every logarithm, but now I'm glad because, for the past 25 years, I've known something about the universe."

Moore concedes that course requirements have negative aspects, too, but her point is that "for well over 20 years," since the demise of requirements at Oberlin, "it's been quite possible to graduate from the College without ever having darkened the museum's door."

And to Moore, that's tragic. Students owe it to themselves to become acquainted with visual art, she believes, to learn that images, like words, have the power to convey meaning, and sometimes to do so in ways that words cannot. Only through frequent contact can a person engage so closely with a work of art that its meaning becomes clear--an event she characterizes as an "aesthetic high."

Oberlin is one of the few colleges or universities that offer the opportunity for intimate encounters with such high quality, original works of art--the opportunity to learn that art is a part of life.

"Art is really about the authenticity of ideas," says Moore. "It's about honesty and spiritually, the real humanness in each of us."

Return to the OAM Summer 1996 Table of Contents