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Arts Asks: A Conversation With Martha Tedeschi

By Courtesy of Rose Lincoln / Harvard Public Affairs & Communications
By Elizabeth C. Keto, Crimson Staff Writer

Martha Tedeschi, currently deputy director for art and research at the Art Institute of Chicago, will become the next director of the Harvard Art Museums, the University announced March 9. Tedeschi, who received her Ph.D. at Northwestern University and who specializes in British and American art, will lead the newly renovated museums beginning in July. This week, Tedeschi talked with The Harvard Crimson about her aspirations, anticipated challenges, and new ideas for the arts on campus.

The Harvard Crimson: What are you most looking forward to in your new role?

Martha Tedeschi: The thing that I think I’m getting most excited about as I get closer to my start date is working with students at all stages of their careers…. I’m very excited about working not only with what I understand are inspiring [Harvard undergraduates], but also with all the professional schools. I’m very interested in... how the museum can help students at various levels of their training develop specific skills that they’ll need as they go forward. I’m talking not only about students training for curatorial careers or work in the museum field but also much more broadly. I think the museums can, for example, play a really important role in helping students who are in… any of the STEM fields see that there is a value to creativity and intuition. So I’m really hoping that I can be a facilitator for those conversations that can infuse creativity into disciplines across campus. The other thing that I’m really looking forward to—that has attracted me to Harvard all along—is the opportunity to work with such an amazing and wide-ranging collection and with such a highly regarded staff. And then of course there’s the beautiful building, and the potential that’s inherent in the way it was designed for teaching and training.

THC: What changes are you hoping to make at the museums? What do you see as the current strengths of the museums?

MT: I think it’s wonderful the way that the vision for the Harvard Art Museums was built right into the building: the sense of transparency, the sense of a building that wants to be activated, the way that wherever you stand in the building you can see people moving through and enjoying the collections, the beautiful study rooms that allow different parts of the collection to come together in dialogue…. For me, it’s less about coming in and making changes than it is about understanding what the potential is for that building. I think that the building really wants us to collaborate, to bring in voices from other disciplines across campus, to bring objects from different times and different geographies into dialogue with each other. I think that at Harvard we finally have a building that is poised to be a kind of laboratory for a 21st century investigation of the visual. My predecessor, Tom Lentz, did a wonderful job working with the architect, Renzo Piano, to envision a great teaching and training museum. I really see my job more as helping to realize that potential.

THC: What are the strengths that you believe you will bring to the museum?

MT: I’ve been at [the Art Institute of Chicago] for more than thirty years. I started as an intern and worked my way up pretty much every rung of the curatorial ladder. So one of my strengths is that I’ve seen the inner workings of a great museum, a museum like Harvard’s, from every different perspective, from every level of curatorial and now senior management positions. I really understand the elements of a well-run museum. I also understand, from having been at every step in the ladder, how critical it is to feel like you’re part of a team…. I’ve learned a lot about team building, and I think that that is one of the strengths that I bring. Another strength is that I have been involved in recent years with two different programs that are meant to address curatorial training. One is trying to diversify the pipeline into museum professions, and the other is trying to prepare graduate students with an education that will include not only very rigorous training in art history but also a deep comfort level with working with objects in museum collections. So I’m bringing with me a real interest in the pedagogical function of the museum and a particular passion right now for the issue of diversity in museums. [The issue of ethnic and racial diversity is] something in which Harvard could play a real leadership role.

THC: What do you anticipate being some of the challenges in your new role?

MT: One of the challenges for me will be learning Harvard, learning how you get things done on a college campus, since I’m not coming from an academic environment. [Harvard will] be an environment in which collaboration, networking, and consensus-building will be very important…. Another challenge is figuring out what the building needs to be sustainable. It’s only been open a little over a year, and I think we’re still finding out what’s costing more to run, what’s costing less to run, what’s working well, what’s working less well. A challenge will be for all of us to stay flexible as the building teaches us what’s possible.

THC: What’s your vision for the role of the Harvard Art Museums on campus?

MT: I like to see the Harvard Art Museums as an organization that in the next few years becomes increasingly inclusive and that increasingly projects a spirit of generosity. I want Harvard students, regardless of what they’re studying, to see the art museums as a…space that can offer them a respite or some fun or a meeting place. Harvard students are under a fair amount of stress, and intellectually they’re being challenged at the highest level. I think that the art museums can both enhance that experience and mitigate it, by offering students a space to explore more informally, to gather and have conversations about big ideas through the lens of perhaps a single object. I’m hoping that more and more of the kinds of exhibitions and programming that we do at the Harvard Art Museums will allow students and our public to learn about all the different disciplines that are taught at Harvard.... I think it’s amazing to look at a particular object, say a textile, and to look at it through the lens of economics and trade and history and art-making and science. There are so many ways to look at a given object, and I think that this can be a microcosm for what’s happening on campus, all these different modes of inquiry. What I’m hoping is that Harvard students will find the museums beckoning to them, with the way that you can learn something by stopping in even for 20 minutes, learn something that broadens your mind and broadens the way that you think, that maybe gives you a more global or more inclusive worldview.

—Staff writer Elizabeth C. Keto can be reached at

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