Open Admissions

Yale University's Art Gallery Goes Public

by David Masello

The 1928 Swarthout wing (center) of the Yale University Art Gallery melds with the 1953 building (left) by Louis Kahn

Yale University’s president-elect, Peter Salovey, was being photographed along New Haven’s Chapel Street. As he walked the leafy campus street, the photographer and his assistant were careful to make sure that in every shot he was backdropped by the Yale University Art Gallery, a series of three contiguous buildings that stretched for a long block and a half. That Salovey, on the eve of his assuming the presidency, was insisting that he be seen in front of the new museum facilities points to the gallery’s importance not only in his coming tenure, but as an icon of American culture. With its official re-opening to the public December 12, 2012, the gallery has immediately earned distinction as one of America’s most comprehensive and accessible cultural institutions—and one that just happens to be situated on the campus of one of the world’s most distinguished institutions of learning.

Yale is often cited as having established the first university art museum in America (it’s also regarded as the third oldest such museum in the world). It’s a facility that, since its founding in 1832, has amassed an encyclopedic collection of more than 200,000 objects—ranging from items as old as Neolithic fragments and ninth-century BC Assyrian heads to contemporary works by the likes of Chuck Close and Wayne Thiebaud, both Yale alumni. More than 4,000 of those objects, within eleven curatorial departments, are currently on display.

“People will ask of this new expansion and renovation of the Yale Art Gallery, ‘Why has the university done this and why is it that its doors are open to the public, free of charge, as they always have been,’” Salovey said in a speech delivered prior to the official opening. He explained: “Well, one could answer easily, ‘Because it’s a way for us to engage with the community, to reach out to New Haven and include this university in the lives of the people who live here.’ And that would be correct. But, also, this new facility and its prominence on the campus and in town is a way for us to show how art can and does play a role in our students’ education. We want to build this collection into their educational experience and to create in them a lifetime appreciation of the visual arts.”

Ancient art sculpture hall, Yale University Art Gallery © Elizabeth Felicella, 2012Art appreciation was a kind of required course for students and alumni before the school was even called Yale. Its namesake, Elihu Yale, was born in Boston in 1649 but left America at the age of three, never again to return. He donated a portrait of King George I by Sir Godfrey Kneller to what was then called the Collegiate School in New Haven. Yale, who had built an immensely successful career as a governor of the East India Company while simultaneously amassing a collection of 8,000 paintings, wished to reestablish his native connection to New England near the end of his life. With that gift, presented in 1718, the school changed its name to Yale College. “How exactly Elihu’s name was to be perpetuated back in Connecticut was…unclear at this point,” write Basie Bales Gitlin, a 2010 graduate of Yale, and Jay Gitlin, his father, who is a lecturer in Yale’s department of history, in an essay they co-wrote for the Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2012). “Was ‘Yale’ simply to be the name of a new college hall, already under construction, or of the Collegiate School as a whole? At Commencement on September 10, 1718, ‘a great number of Learned Men’ assembled in the ‘Large and Splendid Hall’ and officially designated it ‘Yale-Colledge (sic).’”

In 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower donated to the university an eighteenth-century portrait of Elihu Yale by an unknown artist. According to Romita Ray, a professor of art history at Syracuse University, who wrote an essay about Elihu Yale in the 2012 Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, Eisenhower had received the portrait from India’s Jawaharlal Nehru (who, apparently, had approved of Eisenhower’s re-gifting). It is a portrait that, as Ray writes, “presents a sober image of a wealthy East India Company merchant whose quiet opulence of dress underscores his lucrative Indian career.” Ray points out, too, that like other extant portraits of Yale, this one includes a detail of an open window “framing a distant landscape [that] serves as a metonymic reminder of the far-flung geographies with which his life and career were inextricably linked.” That sense of cultural and geographical expanse is certainly indicative of the very mission of Yale University.

Many an alumnus has donated funds to get his name on a new undergraduate dormitory or school of business, but none have been able to get their alma mater to change its name, no matter the degree of munificence. In the case of Mr. Elihu Yale, a man who left Connecticut as a three-year-old, it seems to have required the gift of a painting depicting the far-off colonial ruler.

Although that Kneller portrait, along with thirty-two other paintings that the university soon acquired, were the first artworks in its possession, it was with another bequest in 1832 that art became an intrinsic part of every Yale student’s education. John Trumbull, the Revolutionary War veteran and artist, donated nearly 100 paintings to the college (despite his having been a graduate of Harvard)—but with the stipulation of an annuity of $1,000. Those works, which depicted the conflict and key moments leading to and following it, including his Signing of the Declaration of Independence (c. 1800), required a facility in which they could be properly displayed. Trumbell himself designed a Greek Revival-style facility on Yale’s “Old Campus” where his legacy as both painter and patron would be honored.

But as the university’s art holdings increased, yet more room was needed. In 1866, Yale’s governors commissioned the architect Peter Bonnett Wight to design a neo-Gothic facility to serve as both art gallery and a new School of the Fine Arts. It was the first such college program in the nation—and one that, in an arrangement akin to the current museum, was open to both town residents and Yale students.

American Painting and sculpture galleries, Yale University Art Gallery © Elizabeth Felicella, 2012That arrangement worked fine for nearly a century. But by 1926, the college had received yet more gifts of art—more than could be contained within the barrel-vaulted limestone hallways and galleries of the Wight building. The bequests included some 1,000 Greek and Italian vases from the Rebecca Darlington Stoddard Collection and 150 works from the Fritz Achelis collection of old master prints, including ones by Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt van Rijn that are now on display. At the same time, the university had purchased the James Jackson Jarves collection of early Italian Renaissance paintings, more than 100 works that included rare panel paintings from the thirteenth-to-fifteenth centuries, some of which are on view in the ethereally hushed galleries of Italian art. Architect Egerton Swarthout fashioned a building, situated next door to Wight’s, that harkened to trecento Italian architecture. Suddenly, within a rigorously neo-Gothic campus, stood a restrained Italian palazzo, absent a resident Medici—though some of the artworks within had been commissioned by that family. The two buildings functioned on the street as a kind of abbreviated visual timeline of history.

That timeline expanded even further in 1953, when modernist architect Louis Kahn debuted his design for yet another facility, located next to the Swarthout building. At the time, Kahn was a visiting critic at Yale’s school of architecture, and the commission represented his first museum. The cornices and window tracery, the crenellations and bell towers, the fanciful moldings and loggias of the other two buildings now had to compete with their new modernist neighbor, a five-story concrete edifice. But the Kahn building was not only needed to house a still-expanding collection, but seemed to be an appropriate architectural style to house modern works, as well as bold African, Asian and Indo-Pacific art and artifacts.

Beginning in 1998, a master plan was established for what is referred to as the Yale Arts Area, the key component of which was for the renovation and expansion of all three buildings in such a way that they would function as a single edifice. Architects Duncan Hazard and Richard Olcott of Ennead Architects managed to seamlessly link the three buildings with bridges and subtly graded ramps and, in so doing, expand the available exhibition space from 40,226 square feet to 69,975. Three times as many artworks are now on view as before. As Jock Reynolds, the gallery’s director, explained to the assembled crowd in December, just prior to its public opening, the artworks have been arranged so that they seem contemporaneous to when each building is made. He added: “I can assure you that you, the visitor, will never get fatigued architecturally.” Meanwhile, New York Times critic Charles McGrath referred to the successful fundraising efforts of Reynolds as an exemplary act of “performance art.” Approximately $135 million was raised for the project, a feat all the more notable given that it occurred at the height of the U.S. recession.

Indeed, to visit the now completed museum is to occupy a state of continual awe—certainly at the scale and caliber of the holdings, but also at the experiences had within the varied light-infused interior spaces and the manner in which the artworks are displayed. There is an immediacy to many of the items that feels unequaled by any other museum. According to Laurence Kanter, the chief curator, the only paintings in the collection that are glazed are some of Vuillards. Even the museum’s iconic centerpieces—Vincent van Gogh’s The Night Café (1888), among them—are left unglazed and positioned at eye level with no ropes or plinths in the way. Within certain galleries of the American decorative arts area, bowls and plates and assorted items arrayed on table tops feel positively retail in their accessibility.

Among the most startling experiences is to tour the museum’s two American period rooms. In most museums, the experience of seeing a period room means standing behind a wall of Plexiglas to look at a hermetically sealed interior or leaning over a velvet rope to see as much as you can of a set dining table or the piece of sheet music positioned at an early piano. But at the Yale University Art Gallery, visitors can actually occupy, walk through, hear the thud of their footsteps on the floorboards of the parlor from the Rose house (c. 1725) of North Branford, Connecticut, and the reconstructed parlor from the Rowley house (c. 1770) of Gilead, Connecticut. Patricia Kane, the curator of American decorative arts, points out, too, that none of the Colonial and early Federal furniture pieces on display elsewhere in the galleries are set on plinths. Every chair and table, set decidedly on the floor and lined up neatly against the wall, is subsequently set at the eye level at which a visitor would see it in a house. When asked whether she worried that visitors might help themselves to a period candlestick or bud vase that is within an easy arm’s reach in the period rooms, or that an eager visitor might want to “tag” his visit to a Colonial interior, Kane says: “It’s an experiment we’re willing to take.” Jock Reynolds concurs: “We have never had any item vandalized in the museum. People who visit art museums are respectful.”

Not unlike the surprise-factor that comes when an instructor announces a pop quiz to a class of unprepared undergraduates, so, too, is the experience of entering every gallery in the new facility. Turn a corner in the modern and contemporary galleries, and you are confronted with two classic Untitled Mark Rothko canvases from 1956 and 1958. Van Gogh’s iconic café scene is situated in a small alcove, as if it were just another ancillary late-ninteenth-century work instead of one of his most famous canvases. Thomas Eakins’s Taking the Count (1898), a hugely scaled narrative work infused with an erotic charge, depicts two bare-chested boxers in the ring, one down for the count. It looms over one of the museum’s galleries of American paintings so conspicuously that gallery-goers are drawn to it as if taking a ringside seat.

View through Yellin Gates into coins and medals gallery, Yale University Art Gallery © Elizabeth Felicella, 2012Within an adjacent gallery, four works by Edward Hopper cast their own mood, notably his Rooms for Tourists (1945), which shows a white frame house at night, its windows lit by lamplight, a destination both inviting and ominous. This one gallery alone, filled with mid-twentieth-century works by American-based painters, provides a survey of art comprehensive enough to fulfill any art history class requirement—Georgia O’Keeffe’s Bob’s Steer Head (1936), Oscar Blumner’s Snow and Glow (1935) and two disconcertingly quasi-figurative works by George L.K. Morris, Invasion Barge (1943) and Composition (1938). Kelly Orgeman, the assistant curator of American paintings and sculpture, says of the two Morris works: “At the very outset of World War II and during it, Morris stopped doing his typical abstract works because he believed that wartime required for a more ordered expression.” Although both works could hardly be called realistic, Invasion Barge especially contains decidedly unambiguous visual references to the American flag, soldiers with helmets and the levels of a U.S. naval ship. Meanwhile, “the biomorphic shapes in Composition appear to coalesce into a whole figure,” writes Orgeman in the Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin.

Despite its overt and intimate connection to the university, the Yale Art Gallery as it now exists is something other than just a college art museum. It’s an amalgam of a private and public institution. Most university art museums are open to the public, but their collections are often limited and static, and the building itself is usually situated well within the confines of a campus. But, increasingly, the college art museum across the country is assuming a more pronounced role beyond its campus setting. Eli Broad, for instance, the Los Angeles-based billionaire financier and collector of modern and contemporary art, gave $130 million to build his Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at his alma mater, Michigan State University. He hired the name-brand architect Zaha Hadid, and he donated eighteen works from his private collection to seed the new facility, which opened in November 2012. On the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover, New Hampshire, plans are underway for a significant expansion and renovation of its venerable Hood Museum of Art. Colby College in Waterville, Maine, has announced the expansion of its museum of art. On its website, it includes a menu of “Naming Opportunities” for various portions of the museum, along with their price tag (e.g., $1.5 million for the sculpture terrace).

Today, Elihu Yale’s gift of a painting of a far-away colonial ruler would likely not earn him much sway at his now namesake university—neither his portrait (in storage) nor the one he gave has even made it to the postcard rack at the Yale Art Gallery. But his gift did set a precedent for the way that art figures into the agenda of every student at the university. It set into motion, too, a custom among Yale alumni to donate art and provide funds for acquiring more, as well as to endow curators (twenty-two of the gallery’s twenty-three curators). Although the new entrance within the Kahn building is an inviting one, it might be appropriate if the curators hung there one of those several portraits of Mr. Yale that the museum owns—for paintings by Rubens and Frans Hals, the ancient Greek krayters and cases of gleaming Colonial American silver might not await visitors were it not for his gift of centuries ago.

The Yale University Art Museum is located at 1111 Chapel Street, New Haven, Connecticut 06520. Telephone (203) 432-0600.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2013, Voume 30, Number 2