Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 22
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
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Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton

ART APPRECIATION: “The relationship with a work of art is both intensely personal — in the way that it speaks to your individual life experience, to your emotions, to the hunger to know more — and also universal, embodying values that often transcend time and place. On purely visual terms, great art just feeds me — speaking to something that goes beyond words.” James Steward, Director of the Princeton University Art Museum, looks forward to sharing his love of art with a broader audience. He also serves as a Lecturer with the rank of Professor in the Department of Art & Archaeology.

Making Art Matter to a Wider Audience: The Mission of University Art Director James Steward

James Christen Steward has always felt at home in museums. From his earliest years, he found a museum to be a place of discovery, imagination, and wonder.

His first glimpse of a museum, in fact, was as a baby, just weeks old! “My mother was an artist, and she was always associated with artists and museums,” explains Mr. Steward. “The story is that I was taken to the National Gallery in London when I was six weeks old.”

He may not remember that particular museum expedition, but he certainly remembers many others. Now, as Director of the Princeton University Art Museum, he hopes both to build on the museum’s excellent reputation, its commitment to scholarship, and to shaping future generations of art historians and museum professionals.

An equally important focus, he emphasizes, is to “open up the museum to matter more to the whole of the Princeton student population and indeed to the broader local and regional community. We’re trying mightily to be welcoming and available, to help people find their way to the museum and understand that this can be an exciting place, and not just a noble or worthy place, for everyone.”

Many Museums

There seems to be no question that James Steward is in the right work, the right place, and at the right time. His upbringing, education, travels, experiences, and previous work laid the foundation for this position at Princeton, which he undertook officially a year ago in April.

His life story is unique. James spent his early years in India and Southeast Asia. The second son of Donald and Carolee Steward, he discovered a comfort level with museums at a young age. His father’s work in international development made travel and living abroad essential and brought with it opportunities to visit many museums and exposure to different cultures.

“On our trips to the Far East, we would stop on the way in Paris and London, and we visited the museums,” recalls Mr. Steward. “My mother took us to museums all the time, and consequently, I have always felt comfortable there.”

At nine, James left India to attend boarding school in New England. As he points out, “When you go away that young, it tends to do one of two things, either encouraging you to be self-reliant, or to make you feel overwhelmed and adrift, at home nowhere. By nature, I was fairly tenacious, so I chose to swim rather than sink, and simply made the best of it.”

He liked school, was a devoted reader, and also enjoyed the outdoors and sports. He ran track, was on the lacrosse team, participated in downhill skiing, and also loved horseback riding, both competitive and recreational.

The family took trips together, and Mr. Steward especially recalls visits to Virginia to see his maternal grandmother.

Real Audacity

“I loved going to see her, and ultimately getting to know her as an adult, since she lived to be 98. She was one of 11 children, and she had intensely loving parents, who really fostered individuality and a sense of self in their children. Not only was she wonderfully warm and giving, but she had real audacity and spirit, and was a woman who was proud to be ahead of her time. Before settling into marriage and motherhood, she clearly felt she had to make her own mark, so she went out west to become (as she told it) the first woman bank clerk in the Rockies, in Montana. She kept that spirit to the end, and was fascinated by new technologies in her eighties and nineties.”

In 1977, James graduated from private school in Washington, D.C., and then went on to the University of Virginia (UVa), where he majored in European history, art history, and French.

“As a freshman, I took first year art history with Frederick Hartt, a famous art historian,” remembers Mr. Steward. “We would sit in a big lecture hall, the lights dimmed, and these beautiful images appeared. And he’d be holding forth in this incredibly eloquent way.”

While still an undergraduate at UVa, he was accepted at L’Ecole de Louvre at the Sorbonne in Paris to study art for two years.

“I was thinking about a career in art and in a museum,” he explains. “Art and museums were becoming a passion. My professors in Paris both curated and taught, and they were role models to me, showing that it was possible to deal with the life of the mind and with original works of art. Ultimately, that really shaped my desire not only to have a career as an art historian, but to do so in the context of a museum.”

Seminal Moment

After graduating from the University in 1981, James attended graduate school at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, where he had hoped to work with the late Kirk Varnedoe, but Varnedoe had left to become a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

“I wanted to work with a mentor and guide,” explains Mr. Steward. After receiving a masters degree in the history of art from NYU, he traveled to Trinity College at Oxford University to study with Francis Haskell, the renowned art historian.

“This was seminal moment for me,” he adds. “I wanted to study European history and art history, and to do so in a European setting, with extraordinary art collections and archives at my doorstep and across the Channel, simply made all the difference.”

His dissertation, “The New Child: British Art and the Origin of Modern Childhood, 1730-1830”, was published as a book in 1995, and was later the focus of exhibitions at several museums.

After earning his Ph.D., the now “Dr.” Steward served as curator and assistant director and later chief curator at the Berkeley Art Museum at the University of California between 1992 and 1998. While there, he organized numerous exhibitions, ranging from the art of ancient Greece to contemporary painting. He also developed and taught museum studies and period art history.

“I loved my work at Berkeley,” he says. “It was my first ‘real’ job out of graduate school, and where I really cut my teeth as a curator. I had an opportunity to build a program, to devise major international loan exhibitions, to work with fantastic faculty as a peer for the first time, to teach undergrads and grad students, and to have an incredibly supportive director who embraced my success, as well as extraordinary colleagues who remain friends to this day. And I was able to do all this while having Alice Water’s Chez Panisse as my neighborhood restaurant, which, for a ‘foodie’, is pretty phenomenal.

“Also, being in the west and having the opportunity to bike and hike and explore was wonderful.”

Wide Spectrum

In 1998, Dr. Steward moved to Michigan to assume the directorship of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, as well as to serve on the faculty. His work there, incorporating a wide spectrum of responsibilities — from fund-raising to overseeing exhibitions and scholarly and public programs — was a high point in his career.

“The effort I led to design, build, and fund-raise for a new museum facility, and to do so with a truly exceptional staff who gave so much of themselves to bring about what had been a dream for over 50 years, is something I am very proud of.”

In fact, during his stay at Michigan, he was responsible for overseeing the planning, construction, and fund-raising for a $42 million expansion and restoration of the museum.

Under his leadership, the museum’s collection has grown by some 3500 works of art, bringing it to a total of 19,000 objects — an increase of more than 20 percent in a decade. He also taught courses in 18th century art and museum studies.

Dr. Steward’s administrative and scholarly abilities were gaining recognition in the education and art worlds. A specialist in 18th and 19th-century European art and culture, he has been the recipient of several major grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He serves on the government affairs committee of the Association Art Museum Directors, and is a member of many professional and community organizations and boards.

Dr. Steward has written and edited many books, catalogues, and articles. In addition to having organized countless exhibitions, he is an invited lecturer at universities in the U.S. and abroad. He is currently writing a volume on the place of the modern day museum in American civic life.

Perfect Fit

Such exceptional experience and credentials rose to the top when the Princeton University Art Museum was seeking a new director in 2008. Dr. Steward was selected to head the museum after 11 years at the University of Michigan. Those involved with the search committee and others who have come to know him all comment on how well Dr. Steward’s abilities complement the art museum’s mission, values, and needs.

“As we had hoped when we concluded the search for a new museum director, James Steward seemed to us then, and has since proven to be, the perfect fit for the job,” notes John Wilmerding, Professor Emeritus of the Department of Art & Archaeology, who chaired the search committee.

“At the University of Michigan, he raised significant amounts of support toward the building and opening of a major new wing for its museum. Given Princeton’s needs for expansion of our facilities and growth of our collections, he offered the exact track record we desired. Since his arrival, Steward has brought new focus and stimulus to the professional staff, reviewed the strategic priorities for future acquisitions, and greatly revitalized the uses of the museum to bring in students and members of the Princeton community.

“He has energetically engaged our alumni collectors and potential donors, and conceived of new programs for exhibiting our collections both on campus and in traveling exhibitions. Above all, he understands the quality and depth of our holdings, and has a vision for raising the art museum’s reputation and influence to new levels of recognition.”

Every Expectation

Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton University Provost, agrees. “He’s at once scholarly, energetic, collegial, and accomplished. We knew he was terrific when we hired him, but his first year has surpassed every expectation.

“What impresses me most are the many imaginative ways he has found to engage students and the surrounding community in the life of the museum. The Princeton University Art Museum has a tremendous collection and a wonderful group of curators and staff; James is helping the world to understand what an asset the museum is to the University’s educational and outreach missions.”

And adds Carol Rigolot, Executive Director of the Princeton University Humanities Council: “Anyone who has the good fortune to talk with James Steward, or hear him speak, feels his imaginative force. As an Old Dominion Faculty Fellow in the Humanities Council this year, he led one of our liveliest sessions about the role of museums, both in general and at Princeton. Thanks to James Steward’s special combination of thoughtfulness and dynamism, he — and the art museum — are loci of cultural life in the community.”

Founded in 1882, the Princeton University Art Museum features a distinguished collection of approximately 72,000 works, ranging from ancient to contemporary art, and concentrating geographically on art of the ancient Americas, the U.S., the Mediterranean region, Western Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Among the greatest strengths are the collections of Greek and Roman antiquities; Chinese art; the art of the ancient Americas; and western European and American art, with significant examples from the Renasissance through the 19th century.

The museum has outstanding collections of old master prints and drawings, a comprehensive collection of original photographs, and a growing collection of modern and contemporary art. In 2008, the museum attracted more than 100,000 visitors.

No Stranger

Dr. Steward was no stranger to the museum, having visited it as a student.

“What I primarily knew was the collection, which is among the finest in the country, and certainly among the greatest university collections anywhere. What ultimately persuaded me to come was more complicated: the University leadership, which is just exceptional and is deeply committed to the arts and humanities — witness President (Shirley M.) Tilghsman’s commitment to the arts as one of her legacy initiatives; the quality of the faculty; the quality of the student body; the location proximate to New York and Philadelphia. Given all this, the fact that there is still a real opportunity to do something and to make a difference — that was undeniably attractive.

“I simply love the people I work with, whether our remarkable provost, or the incredibly creative and dedicated staff, or our inspiring and welcoming volunteers and donors. The beauty of the campus, and the discoveries I’m still personally making in the collections all the time — with 72,000 accessioned works of art and another 10,000 archival works, there’s a lot to discover! These feed me every day.”

And he is very busy — meetings, fund-raising, planning exhibitions, building the collections, and devising an expanding series of public programs.

“I’m also the external voice and face to the museum, meeting with alumni, telling the story of the museum in the community and beyond. It is also essential that I spend time in other museums — looking; learning from their best, most creative ideas; meeting with fellow museum directors to see what we might do together. I’m inherently collaborative by nature, and think that by joining forces, we can make 1 plus 1 equal 3.”

“Fortuitously for me as museum director, my tastes and interests are really quite eclectic — I can get equally excited about a 14th-century Chinese handscroll, or a 12th-century Korean vase, or an early de Kooning canvas — all of which we happen to have here in Princeton.”

Greater Heights

Bringing the museum to even greater heights is a priority. As he points out, “We do wonderful exhibitions, but there, I think we have more work to do. We’re simply not as well known as our collections and programs deserve to be. We have an extraordinary collection, but we have the resources to do even more, and so we’re increasingly focusing on works of the absolute highest quality, from Pre-Columbian art to contemporary work. We are also in the process of moving to a year-round schedule of exhibitions and launching our first summer exhibitions in decades, starting at the end of May.”

Not only is Dr. Steward exhilarated with his role at the art museum, he has become a fan of the Princeton community. “I love the town. I feel so fortunate to live within walking distance of Palmer Square and to be able to walk into town all the time, whether it’s for an ice cream at the Bent Spoon or a browse at Labyrinth Books or at the Princeton Record Exchange.

“I’ve also been really pleased to discover the wonderful range of what’s on offer here, and how welcoming our local cultural resources are — whether it’s the Princeton Symphony or the Princeton Singers or organ recitals in the Chapel. And I’m very excited to be joining the board of McCarter Theatre.”

Despite his incredibly tight schedule, he tries to find time for favorite pursuits, such as riding. “I also love digging in the garden,” he reports, “reading (mostly biographies and memoirs for the past couple of years — something about the reality of these having the kind of bite I want), and sitting quietly on my farm in Virginia, watching the evening come on.

“I still love film — though having cut my teeth in film courses as an undergrad on people like Bergmann and Truffaut and Godard, current cinema is typically at least a little disappointing. But I’m always hopeful!”

Blue Ridge

Travel is a must in Dr. Steward’s work, and he enjoys a variety of locations. “London remains my favorite city in the world. And, oddly, I feel as if I’ve gone home when I’m in San Francisco. Seeing the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia rise up as I make my way southwest past Washington, D.C. still transports me.”

Dr. Steward is a strong believer in working hard to achieve goals and in having a passion for one’s work. “Conviction and passion — believing in something beyond yourself — are so important. Honor, and ambition to make something of your life and leave a positive mark on others, even if that mark is never celebrated or recognized. Perhaps holding on to a certain innocence or optimism, believing unfashionably that one CAN make a difference in the face of the daily onslaught of cynicism.”

He respects individuals in all walks of life who demonstrate such qualities. “I admire public figures who have values and conviction and intelligence — Bill Bradley, for example and — Meryl Streep. Lately, I find myself admiring Laura Bush for having the strength to voice her own world view and being seemingly a person of substance.”

Ultimately, it is art that has brought special meaning to his life. “The fact that great art is both universal and deeply personal, that it has the capacity to transcend the particularities of time and place make it so important,” he states. “Great art from the past can tell us about what links us to a culture wholly alien from our own, and yet also what is different and unique. We can get glimpses into the world of China before the time of Christ, or into the earliest moments in the American Republic, or into what it was like to be a woman in the 19th century, or to live in New York City when it became the center of the art world at the end of the Second World War.

“Art certainly has meant many, many different things: to the ancient Egyptians, art helped carry the individual into the afterlife; to a medieval Christian, it was a sign of faith and reverence; to the post-Enlightenment American, it helped us find our place in the world. Great museums give us access to these moments in time and other cultures.

“I have had the opportunity to work with extraordinary works of art and to help bring those works of art alive for the public — and not just for the dedicated few, but for many just finding their way to art,” continues Dr. Steward.

“Now, I look forward to helping the museum achieve the renown it deserves, and to make it come alive for every Princeton student, for the local and regional community, and for the tens of thousands who visit Princeton from around the world every year. Within five or 10 years, I’d like people to be able to say, ‘Yes, that’s a Princeton exhibition’ and have that mean something unique and special.”

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