Treasures Hide In Plain Sight

Only 1 percent of huge collection is on display; Allston move looms

The path to the office of Harvard University Art Museums (HUAM) Director Thomas W. Lentz is paved with art-world gold. On the walls of his small study tucked away in the second floor of the Fogg Art Museum, the works of Georges Braque and Walter Sickert—the painter who some think led a double life as Jack the Ripper—represent just a small sample of Harvard’s massive holdings that students do not see.

Lentz, who was named HUAM director in 2003, now manages the largest university art collection in the country.

Harvard’s art museums, which include the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Arthur M. Sackler Museums, contain more than 260,000 objects and acquire up to 3,000 new objects a year, according to HUAM’s registrar, Maureen I. Donovan. The museums’ endowment was $575 million as of Jan. 1, millions more than the endowments of other Ivy League museums.

Lentz and other HUAM officials bristle when asked about the monetary worth of the art, refusing to disclose the holdings’ estimated worth for insurance reasons.

“We do not ‘collaterize’ our collections. In other words, they are priceless, irreplaceable, and we do not speak of them in terms of dollar value,” Deputy Director of the Art Museums Richard Benefield says in an e-mail.

Yet the collection is littered with priceless masterpieces. From its famous self-portraits of Vincent Van Gogh and Max Beckmann to its collection of Pablo Picasso paintings to its comprehensive set of Chinese jades, HUAM’s line-up of household-name artists can compete with blockbusters at other museums.

Despite the size of the holdings, much of the art that is not on display—99 percent of the collection, in fact—remains in storage, rarely sought out by students. In the long term, Lentz says he hopes to remedy that problem with the proposed move to Allston and the increase in gallery space that will accompany the move.

In the meantime, undergraduate groups new and old are working alongside Lentz to increase publicity about the museums, and curators are designing exhibits catered to student interest. Still, many seniors will graduate in May having never seen one of HUAM’s masterpieces.

“There is a real disconnect, especially with the undergraduate population,” Lentz says.

STUDY CENTERS

Compared with the size of their collection, Harvard’s art museums have precious little exhibition space. In an effort to reach out to students, HUAM, Lentz says, gives access “in different ways, and not just in the galleries.”

The future expansion into Allston offers a long-term answer to the problem, but HUAM has found a short-term solution in the study rooms located in all three of the main art museums. In those rooms, visitors can request to see any piece of art in the collection, either during open hours or by appointment.

“What is really special about the Harvard art museums are the study rooms that are here,” says Susan M. Dackerman, the Weyerhaeuser curator of prints at the Fogg, who heads a department that includes about 70,000 prints from the late 15th century to present day.

Dackerman says the Mongan Center study room in the Fogg is particularly important for her department because light-sensitive works on paper are not permanently displayed. But Dackerman does not view that as a drawback.

Whether an academic is interested in the 300 prints by Rembrandt, or a class wants to study a selection of Civil War works, she says, “the study rooms are an amazing opportunity to sit there and have this intimate experience with real works of art.”

If students do not know that they can visit the study rooms to examine any one of these pieces, though, they might miss the opportunity to see a Goya, Matisse, or Warhol print up close.

“I think when students are interested in the museums, the staff is very receptive,” says Philippa G. Eccles ’09, the co-president of Student Friends of HUAM. “But on the other end, I’m always amazed at all the seniors who don’t know about the museums.”

In the 2005-2006 fiscal year, HUAM’s study rooms received over 3,000 visits. The museums’ total attendance amounted to more than 145,000 visits, according to Director of Public Programming and Visitor Services Meg Howland.

ACROSS THE RIVER

Behind the Mongan Center is a room where all “big and unwieldy” pieces are hung on screens, too large to store any other way. As a result, the “screen storage” room can be host to some odd pairings.

“It is a puzzle to store things because we are just finding space,” Dackerman says, pulling out a screen to see what surprise awaits her. “Here you have a 1958 Frank Stella piece and a Durer piece from 1515 sitting side by side, because once you get past a certain size, all the pieces are stored together.”

The upcoming renovation of the Fogg and the eventual opening of a new museum in Allston will allow for more exhibition space, more storage space, and—the HUAM staff hopes—greater accessibility.

For Curator of Modern Art Harry Cooper ’81-’82, the plan for a new museum in Allston is particularly exciting because it is set to emphasize modern and contemporary art, presently the smallest HUAM department and one that Cooper heads. Cooper says he has been working to acquire new pieces for his department since his arrival in 1997. The combination of these new acquisitions, along with the new space in Allston, he adds, will allow his department to “think in a different way.”

“We have been used to working in small, intimate spaces...and the spaces haven’t always been so appropriate for contemporary art,” Cooper says. “It will be the first space we’ve ever had that will really seem like a modern and contemporary space.”

Not all the modern and contemporary art will be housed at Allston, however. Cooper says that because the new museum might be less appealing to some than the closer 32 Quincy Street location, there will be some pieces left at the Fogg, “mostly as a signpost to tell people you can go to Allston and see more.”

The HUAM staff is also working to ensure that the new location will not prevent students from taking classes at the museums.

“We are trying to make plans for the best kind of shuttle service,” Cooper says.

But Henry W. Lie ’76, who directs the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies and is helping teach a class in the History of Art and Architecture department, says that he is curious to see whether students will be deterred by the new, more distant location.

“It will be interesting to see the attendance for the courses we teach—it will be a little test for the Allston location,” Lie says.

In the meantime, groups like Student Friends of HUAM and the Organization of Undergraduate Representatives of the Harvard University Art Museums (OUR HUAM) are working to increase publicity and ensure that the move to Allston does not lessen the museums’ emphasis on teaching or sever any ties with the student body.

“I’m not sure that at the moment [accessibility] is the museum’s main drive, because they have a lot going on right now,” says Paris A. Spies-Gans ’09, president of OUR HUAM, which was formed just this fall.

“Like a lot of things at Harvard, they aren’t going to reach out to you,” she adds. “But if you reach out to them, they will be right there.”

—Staff writer Alexandra Hiatt can be reached at ahiatt@fas.harvard.edu.