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Those searching for some of the Harvard University Art Museums’ most important artwork won’t be able to find them in Cambridge for the next year—and some professors say they’re not all that happy about it.
The first-ever international tour of the museums’ Grenville L. Winthrop Collection—part of the largest university art museum holdings in the country—kicked off in Lyon, France last weekend. The show, “A Private Passion,” includes more than 200 paintings, drawings and sculptures by many notable artists, including Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Vincent van Gogh.
Some members of the Harvard community say the tour, originally planned to coincide with renovations to the museums, leaves Harvard students and faculty without many essential research and teaching pieces. And they say that contrary to the museums’ normal practice, professors were not consulted before the works were removed.
Professor of the History of Art and Architecture Ewa Lajer-Burcharth says she thinks her students will suffer from the artwork’s absence. Lajer-Burcharth said she usually assigns papers on several pieces in the Winthrop collection and conducts section discussions in the galleries.
“I strongly believe the collection should not leave the Museums whose strength it is to have it,” she says. “It should be used for instruction, not to showcase the Museums abroad.”
Though she says museum officials have helped in finding alternative solutions for the class, Lajer-Burcharth says even the best substitutions couldn’t replace the pieces on tour.
“It’s not the same,” she says. “I always work with this collection. Without it, the museum is severely depleted.”
Though he was not directly affected by the Winthrop’s departure, Loeb Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology David G. Mitten emphasizes the importance of keeping the Fogg’s pieces on campus.
“We need to have our collections here for the Harvard community,” he says.
Other department members say they feel the museums did not check with them before planning the exhibition.
“I’ve been completely kept out of this,” one professor of the history of art and architecture says. “They never consulted me. Everything I learned was through the grapevine.”
Lajer-Burcharth also says she was not consulted.
According to Fogg Associate Curator Stephan S. Wolohojian, who curated the Winthrop tour, the museums normally take into account academics before loaning work to other institutions.
“We never take anything down if it’s up for teaching purposes,” he says.
The tour has been in the planning process for years, Wolohojian says, and professors had ample time to object if the absence of a work would interfere with their teaching.
“It would be very easy for any professor to know what’s here and what’s not and to plan accordingly,” he says. “It’s not a last-minute thing.”
And History of Art and Architecture Professor Jeffrey F. Hamburg says that the Winthrop’s tour will not affect students or administrators too much.
“My feeling is share the wealth,” he says. “The Fogg doesn’t have the space to exhibit a fraction of their collection, so why shouldn’t they be abroad?”
The museums conceived the plans to tour pieces from the Winthrop collection back in 1997, according to Harvard University Art Museums Acting Director Marjorie B. Cohn. At the time, museum administrators had anticipated that much-needed renovations of the Fogg Art Museum would take place this year and limit exhibition space.
But improvements to the Fogg were placed on the back burner while Harvard focused its energy on the now-defunct plans for a new museum and other building projects. By the time renovation plans were postponed, Harvard had already confirmed exhibition times with both London’s National Gallery and Lyon’s Musee des Beaux-Arts.
The Harvard University Art Museums are considered a premiere research institution, in large part because of the work in the Winthrop collection.
Cohn says a professor from a Texas university sent her an angry letter after he traveled to Cambridge only to find that the pieces he sought had left Harvard for France. She sent him an apology letter and the published catalogue of the traveling collection.
And Cohn says the artwork’s absence is only temporary.
“The pieces have been here all along,” she says. “And they will be back. Students will have a chance to look at them.”
After its run at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, the collection will travel to the National Gallery in London in June and return to the United States for a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in October.
Wolohojian, who traveled to Lyon last weekend for the tour’s opening along with several other Harvard curators, says the collection was enthusiastically received and widely covered in the French press.
Wolohojian says he worked closely with curators in France, London and New York to choose the pieces sent on tour.
“There are so many ways the Winthrop intersects with each museum’s own holdings,” he says. “We worked to make exhibitions that were relevant to each museum.”
Although Harvard compiled the catalogue, museum officials were not involved in the arrangement and display of the collection in the Musee des Beaux-Arts.
“It was wonderful for people to see all our pieces in a new configuration,” Cohn says. “It keeps things fresh.”
The museums are planning an exhibit highlighting the 19th century artwork of the Winthrop collection when it returns to Harvard next spring.
Bequeathed in 1943, the collection makes up a significant portion of the exhibits in the Fogg Art Museum and Arthur M. Sackler Museum’s Asian collection. It includes more than 4,000 pieces that span almost every collecting area of the museums, from early Chinese Art to French medieval sculpture.
“It’s really shaped the legacy of the Fogg,” says museum spokesperson Matthew Barone.
Winthrop, Class of 1886, began collecting art after his graduation. He gave his library to Harvard College, making his entire gift the largest of its kind to any university art museum in the country.
—Staff writer Kristi L. Jobson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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