Q&A with Hood Museum Director John Stomberg

At Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art, ‘our dedication to teaching does not stop at the edge of the campus,’ says its director, John R. Stomberg. (Photo by Rob Burbank)

The Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College reopened in January following a 2-year, $50 million expansion. The project was “driven by a need for increased study gallery space—essentially, specialized classrooms designed for close observation of artworks,” says John R. Stomberg, the museum’s Virginia Rice Kelsey 1961s director.

Renovation costs were covered entirely by donors, Stomberg notes. The museum is open to the public as well as the college community, and no admission is charged.

The museum’s collection tops 65,000 works of art. New works are being debuted this year in concert with the college’s 250th anniversary.

Q. Did the recent expansion of the Hood Museum mark any sort of shift in philosophy or purpose?

A. We now host classes from almost every discipline on campus. With an ever-increasing call for our students to be creative problem-solvers, we have seen an unprecedented uptick in faculty use of the art museum.

While we were closed, we did use the time wisely to conduct an internal seminar on what an art museum should be in the 21st century. We decided to focus on three primary goals: a global focus for all our endeavors (exhibitions, collections and programs); artworks of the highest quality possible; and responsiveness to the world around us — from which has grown our practice of changing collections shows as well as special exhibitions on a regular basis.

Q. Many of the museum’s artworks speak to social issues, and you said in a recent Director’s Letter that the Hood is “dedicated to being a responsive museum.” Can you provide more insight on the place and importance of issue-related art?

A. Every era faces challenges inherent to that time. We are today living through a period of intense strife and vast disagreements on [a wide range of] subjects. We have found that people can disagree with greater civility when we triangulate the conversation. It is no longer one against the other, but rather two together discussing a third entity — the artwork.

Artists who engage the implications of globalization are characteristic of our contemporary world — they represent this era. By collecting their work, we both represent the current condition and provide a productive forum for deep conversations. To be a responsive museum implies both that we pay keen attention to the world around us and that we renew our understanding of the works of art in our care. Each gallery is a story — those stories change as we switch out works of art.

Q. How have you designed the space to accommodate the wide range of art exhibited at the museum?

A. Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, who designed the new Hood, both added new space and renovated the existing building by Charles Moore. Their philosophy for us was “quiet and flexible” architecture. By “quiet” they mean that the galleries do not compete with the art for our visitors’ attention.

In the best cases, the architecture takes on a role similar to a frame — presenting the art beautifully, but not distracting from deep engagements with the art. The “flexible” component comes in with the variety of viewing spaces they have designed. The galleries now range from small and intimate to large and soaring. We display everything from Japanese netsuke, which are only a few inches tall, to paintings that are over 12 feet tall.

Q. Could you highlight a few new works for visitors to discover?

A. Visitors this fall will be treated to a large number of works that are making their debut at the Hood as part of “Art for Dartmouth: Celebrating the 250th.” As part of the college’s anniversary year, the museum will feature works recently donated in honor of this milestone. These include the huge bronze sculpture by Mimmo Paladino that will grace the new atrium; the entire “Black Shunga” suite by Chris Offili; monumental photographs by artists from Vik Muniz to Cao Fei; a 13th century Indian bronze; a Renaissance relief; and several new contemporary paintings by artists including Jane Hammond, William Villalongo and Enrique Martinez Celaya.

Q. Who are some of the more famous artists whose work is on display?

A. Perhaps the best-known artwork at Dartmouth resides in the library, and that is the “Epic of Civilization” fresco by Jose Clemente Orozco. The museum proper holds work by Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Jeffrey Gibson, Mark Rothko, Pietro Perugino, Rembrandt, Ed Ruscha, Picasso, Alma Thomas, El Anatsui and Julie Mehretu, among many, many others.

Q. How does a college museum differ from, say, a city museum or a national museum? Are there specific challenges?

A. A college museum differs from municipal museums in several key points. First, our primary duty is to enhance the curriculum of the faculty. We design every exhibition and installation with this goal in mind. We work on the assumption that our audience members are repeat visitors with the time to invest in long engagements with our art.

Our work differs in other ways as well: our acquisitions committee is made up of faculty and not trustees; we buy art that fulfills curricular goals as well as answering to our criteria for great art; we regularly feature student-curated exhibitions, which are inherently non-professional, along with ones organized by faculty; and the criteria for success of an exhibition is a combination of the number of classes who use it and how helpful it was for the professor.

College museums are laboratories that can take risks that municipal museums often will not, or cannot, take. We can create entire exhibitions dedicated to a tiny interest group if that meets an important curricular demand. We offer a forum for productive and impactful conversations for young people wrestling with the pressing issues of the day.

Q. The museum is open to the public and admission is free. How do those features reflect its mission

A. The fact that the Hood Museum of Art does not charge admission is significant for several reasons. First, the museum is a gift from the college to the community. Not only are we open to the public and free, but we have staff dedicated to working with K-12 school programs around the state whose students come to the museum for repeated visits. Our dedication to teaching does not stop at the edge of the campus.

The fact that we do not charge liberates us from the need to predict popular exhibitions. Our planning focuses rather on other criteria. When planning, we ask, “Will it be: meaningful relevant to the curriculum, historically significant, visually arresting and of interest to our community?” Removing the income necessity provides the Hood the incredible liberty to pursue our mission undeterred.

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