Harvard's art museums stand preeminent among the nation's college and university collections, curators from other leading institutions agree.
The scope and diversity of Harvard's collections are unparalleled at other campuses, but many can claim excellence in specialized areas, and smaller schools often possess masterpieces, art experts say.
Harvard owes its depth in large part to decades of donations and dedication to the arts. The many patrons of the arts converging on Cambridge for the opening of the Sackler Museum reflect the University art collections' broad base of support.
University museums across the country have at least one characteristic in common, however: they serve as classrooms, and their works become three-dimensional textbooks for students of the arts.
This is especially true of the Stanford University art museum. Museum administrator Marty Drickey says the gallery is "basically a teaching museum used by the students." Because of the museum's educational priority, the curators attempt to coordinate temporary exhibits with the needs of art classes.
Stanford also strives for diverse exhibits. "We try to provide something for every student," Drickey says, but she cites Stanford's collection of nineteenth century prints and drawings as a special strength.
Dartmouth's Hood Musuem similarly tries to offer students and visitors a wide selection of artistic styles, from pre-Columbian art to contemporary work. One thing that sets the Hood apart from other college collections is the fact that it houses both ethnographic and traditional art.
Thus, 20th century American art and African art exhibits sit side by side, says Hood Curator Barbara McAdam. "We're on a smaller scale than Harvard," she says, explaining that the museum was built to house more than 40,000 objects which were previously scattered throughout the campus in many small galleries.
Director of the Princeton University Art Museum Allen Rosenbaum also praises his Cambridge counterpart. "Harvard is remarkably rich," he says. "It is rich in so many ways that it would be hard to enumerate them. We're a much smaller institution."
Although he says the Princeton museum needs more masterpieces, he calls the Chinese collection "very fine," the old master drawings "very good," and the pre-Columbian collection "superb."
Asked to rank campus art museums, Rosenbaum says, "Harvard and Yale--then you take a little bit of breath--Princeton, Oberlin and then one is constantly surprised. You can find great treasures anywhere."
Yale's art haven, the second largest museum in Connecticut, has more than 150,000 objects, according to spokesman Kendra Dahlquist.
The Yale University Art Gallery's greatest strengths are its collections of early and later American art, Dahlquist says.
The Yale Gallery's "primary charge as a teaching institution is to teach the students of the art history program and to preserve, protect, and exhibit the collection," but more than half of the museum's visitors are not affiliated with the university, she says.
Similarly, the MIT art museum draws more outsiders than MIT affiliates. According to Warren Seamans, director of the MIT Museum, only one quarter of the people who use the museum are students. The other 75 percent are tourists, people who come to see a specific exhibit, or people who just come in off the street on an impulse, he adds.
The museum's main drawing cards are its collections of Currier and Ives, ship portraiture, photography, and twentieth century technical art, Seaman's said.
Heidi Sarceno, a member of the reference staff at the MIT museum, says, "Most exhibits here have to be justified. They have to be donated by alumni or technically viable." Sarceno says that although the museum used to lack diversity, there is now a broader range of exhibits, such as the current exhibit of photographer Bernice Abbot's work