Oct. 12-18, 2001
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Museum plays educational, cultural role

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Museum plays educational, cultural role

Common People
Katsukawa Shusen’s Japanese woodblock print, c. 1804-1820, “A Depiction of the Life of Common People on the Ryogako Bridge Crossing the Sumida River East of Downtown Edo,” is part of the museum’s permanent collection.

By Jane Ford

The University of Virginia Art Museum opened its doors in 1935 in the Thomas H. Bayly Building with the humble idea of being a gallery for donated art. Today, the museum counts as its treasures not only the more than 10,000 works of art in its collection, ranging from ancient Greek and Roman artifacts to modern works by 20th century American artists, but also the more than 30,000 students and visitors who come to the museum each year to deepen their understanding of world cultures and art history.

The museum has grown into a lively, active institution that attracts students, community members and visitors to enjoy the numerous exhibitions, receptions, docent-led tours, community outreach programs, gallery talks and seminars.

Community members and students who volunteer and intern, as well as faculty and other students, find the collection a rich and varied resource for research.

“We have positioned ourselves as a teaching museum,” said Jill Hartz, museum director since 1997. “We are committed to supporting the academic mission of the University and work actively with schools and other groups in the community to stimulate their intellectual and cultural pursuits.”

“The Taxi Driver,” a 1996 watercolor and ink on paper by American artist Lawrence Amos, is one of the works selected to provide inspiration to writers who will be submitting poems and short stories for the 15th annual Writer’s Eye competition. The works will be on view through Nov. 16, and entries of original compositions must be submitted to the museum by Nov. 30. “The Taxi Driver” is also part of the museum’s “Singular Visions: Folk Art from Charlottesville Collections” exhibition, on display through Dec. 2.

Teaching Mission

The faculty who use the museum for teaching are not limited to the arts but include professors of history, English and engineering.

Lisa Spaar, who teaches creative writing and poetry in the English department, has always used the art museum in her interdisciplinary approach to teaching. She considers the museum a tremendous resource for her students to understand the spatial and two-dimensional aspects of art that can be applied to writing and to understand that writing is visual.

The upcoming exhibit of William Blake’s poetry and engravings — an interdisciplinary collaboration with the departments of art, English and religious studies — will provide her students the opportunity to study the powerful example of parallel use of lines in engravings and lines in poetry, she said. Spaar applauds the museum’s outreach efforts. “Jill has made an extra effort to make it happen,” she said.

Each year, Phyllis Leffler, director of the Institute for Public History, brings students in her “History, Museums and Interpretation” course to the museum. On a visit to the recent exhibit, “The Art of John Dos Passos,” Leffler and her students discussed how a literary figure such as Dos Passos used a visual medium to catalog his travel experiences. The students explored issues of how an exhibit is put together and how an art museum shapes an exhibit differently than an exhibit emphasizing history or literature. “It’s an incredible resource for the students,” Leffler said.

U.Va. Outreach

Book of Job
William Blake’s watercolor drawing, “The Morning Stars sang Together,” is one of the works to be featured in an upcoming exhibition at the museum, “Portions of the Eternal World: Prints by William Blake,” from Jan. 26 through March 31. This particular Blake drawing is from Illustrations of the Book of Job, c. 1821.

Outreach occurs in numerous formal and informal ways. At the museum’s First Friday receptions, students, faculty and members of the community come together to enjoy art, as well as to socialize. David Gies, professor of Spanish, was introduced to these events a few years ago when his graduate students encouraged him to attend. “There’s a synergy there. It provokes conversation,” said Gies, who with his wife, Janna, a Virginia Quarterly editor, are faithful supporters. “We look forward to talking to the students,” he added. “This is a wonderful example of intellectual community on Grounds.”

In an effort to build community and attract students, the museum opens its doors for events sponsored by student groups. A recent reception at the museum, sponsored by the student docents, welcomed first-year students to the University. Last April, Latin American students, through the Dean of Students office, planned an evening of fun in the museum where they created cultural self-portraits through poetry and drama readings, shared music, food, and photographs while exploring their heritage.

Community Outreachs

The museum reaches beyond its — and the University’s — walls to acquaint members of the Charlottesville/Albemarle community with life-time learning experiences. Museum volunteers, called docents — a mix of U. Va. students and enthusiastic area residents — extend the educational mission by leading K-12 students and other groups on interactive tours that often focus on reinforcing the statewide Standards of Learning.

“The museum collections are wonderfully eclectic,” said Jane Anne Young, the museum’s director of education. “We have created tours to cover a wide range of topics, from ancient culture to Middle Ages to math.”

Young gives special praise to the roughly 25 student docents who go through the same rigorous training course as the others. Their adult counterparts watch them in awe, Young said. “They have amazing ideas and approaches to different ages and learning needs.”

African mask
Pumbu helmet mask of the Eastern Pende people of Zaire. the mask, made of wood, pigment and raffia, is part of the museum's permanent collection.

In 1998, a student docent created the successful peer-mentoring program, Early Visions, designed to help challenged high school students working at grade level find avenues to express themselves. Through art and visual learning, in one-on-one mentoring with the student docents, they work on problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, thereby reinforcing the curriculum.

This year, the student docents are creating an introductory video to encourage teachers to bring their classes to the museum. The docent-led tours are “a different approach than they get in class,” said Rebecca Gerber, a fourth-year religious studies and psychology major who is this year’s student docent chair.

The museum also caters to the retired community, creating a welcoming space for groups out for monthly arts adventures.

“We like the atmosphere and feel the exhibits are more varied than what we see on our trips to museums in Washington, D.C.,” said Ellis Flinn, who retired to Charlottesville from Northern Virginia. “We really enjoy the interactive approach,” he said. “It’s a nice thing to do for the community.”

Then there are the youngsters. The museum sponsors several summer programs, including a new three-week camp for fifth- through ninth-graders that showed them how to study and create within the museum setting.

The Collection

In the early years the museum collection included several important works of art that were donated, including Frederick Church’s “Natural Bridge, Virginia,” two Rodin sculptures, and two 17th century Flemish tapestries. It was not until 1972 that it began to function as a collecting institution.

young students in summer program
Fifth-through ninth-graders particpate in the museum's summer program, which allows them t study art and art history and crete within a museum setting.

Today, the museum has an impressive collection with special strengths in Old Master prints, a photography collection that was built with curriculum support funds, a collection of American art dating from the mid-century to today, more than 100 works by mid-20th-century American artists, and the Age of Jefferson Collection, which includes neoclassical art with biblical and mythological themes.

Indian miniature paintings and Japanese woodblock prints that were recently acquired will be the subject of future exhibits. Due to space limitations, only 5 percent of the collection is on view at any time.

Visions for the future

Building on its successes, the museum has ambitious plans for its future as a vital University resource and community partner.

In the University’s master plan for the Arts Grounds, the museum envisions a new environment for experiencing art — a 41,000 square foot state-of-the art facility above Lambeth Colonnade near the Rugby Road Faculty Apartments. Terraced into the hillside, only a short walk from its current location, the new museum will incorporate added galleries for the temporary and permanent exhibits, a theater/auditorium, education and administrative facilities, space for the care and storage of collections, plus a museum gift shop and a café. The museum will be a vital link along the proposed Groundswalk, a University-wide pedestrian path, but more than that, it will be a focal point for the future growth of the arts in the University and Charlottesville/Albemarle communities.


© Copyright 2001 by the Rector and Visitors
of the University of Virginia

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