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Modern and Contemporary Art at Dartmouth: Highlights from the Hood Museum of Art

Hood Quarterly, autumn/winter 2009-10
Emily Shubert Burke, Co-curator of the Exhibition

Modern and contemporary art has been a course topic and popular subject of exhibitions for nearly a century on the Dartmouth College campus. Hand in hand with this comes a legacy of art that continually sparks debate, producing a lasting effect on the daily lives of students and community members. In 1930, Artemas Packard, chairman of the Art Department, and Churchill P. Lathrop, a young member of the faculty, invited José Clemente Orozco to exhibit his latest prints and drawings in Carpenter Hall. Seeing the great potential of having an artist working on campus with students, Packard and Lathrop invited Orozco back. The result was the truly remarkable mural The Epic of American Civilization. Lathrop, a passionate advocate for contemporary art on campus, remained at the college until 1969 as a professor and as director of the art galleries, founding what would become the Sherman Art Library. In 1932, with Packard’s help, he initiated Dartmouth’s artist-in-residence program.

Following in the footsteps of Packard and Lathrop, directors of the Hopkins Center galleries and the Hood Museum of Art have prioritized bringing artists to campus to create works of art and connect with students. Most recently, Wenda Gu and Félix de la Concha have mounted ambitious projects on Dartmouth’s campus, engaging the community with their timely subject matter and striking installations. Unlike any art exhibition in recent memory at Dartmouth, Gu’s work inspired students and community members to react, debate, and make their feelings toward this work of art publicly known. Gu’s and de la Concha’s projects are merely the latest in a long history of works, both within the confines of the gallery walls and elsewhere on campus, designed to allow students to interact with the art of their time.

This tradition of contemporary art as an instigator for dialogue, conflict, and transformative moments can be traced from the time of Orozco’s murals to today, primarily through the collections that reside within the Hood Museum of Art. This legacy also lives on through the works of art displayed around Dartmouth’s campus and the nearly one hundred years of exhibitions that have highlighted the value of the art of their time. The support for modern and contemporary art from generous alumni and the museum’s Board of Overseers, and the dedicated attention of both gallery and museum directors, have guided all related acquisitions and programming. With the inauguration of the Hopkins Center for the Arts in 1962, the facilities for the exhibition of art at Dartmouth doubled in size. The building itself also stood as a work of modern art in the midst of campus, injecting art into the everyday life of the college. Within the Hopkins Center, the Jaffe-Freide and Beaumont-May Galleries prominently featured exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, including works from the artist-in-residence program. Lathrop organized solo shows highlighting artists such as Paul Sample, Frank Stella, Alice Neel, and George Tooker, providing opportunities for the acquisition of works directly from the exhibitions. The majority of acquisitions, however, continued to arise from the generous gifts of Dartmouth alumni. Unable in the early years to seek a comprehensive or encyclopedic collection in prints, painting, sculptures, or works on paper, administrators and curators of the galleries and museum developed an eclectic collection with surprising pockets of strength in areas such as Op Art and Fluxus.

The fall of 1974 proved to be an important moment for contemporary art at Dartmouth as what was formerly called the Hopkins Center Art Galleries and the College Museum was renamed the Dartmouth College Galleries and Collections, marking a shift toward independence for the galleries from the Hopkins Center. This year also marked the arrival of gallery director Jan van der Marck, an activist curator, museum professional, and ardent supporter of contemporary art. With an international perspective on contemporary art, van der Marck brought an ambitious, bold exhibitions and acquisitions program to Dartmouth, marked by the installation on campus of a number of outdoor sculptures by Mark di Suvero, Beverly Pepper, and Richard Nonas. Like his predecessor Jerry Lathrop, van der Marck believed that it was imperative for students to be confronted with the art of their time in their everyday lives, and public sculpture emerged as the primary vehicle for accomplishing this educational goal. Yet as funding for modern and contemporary acquisitions was severely limited, additions to the permanent collection were nearly all opportunistic. In van der Marck’s time Dartmouth received an unprecedented number of modern and contemporary works, including Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas by Ed Ruscha and Yayoi Kusama’s Accumulation II, and his international curatorial perspective and expertise brought the galleries to a new level of professionalism and prestige.

The opening of the Hood Museum of Art in 1985 signaled yet another key moment for contemporary art at Dartmouth.The building, designed by Charles Moore and Chad Floyd of Centerbrook Architects, is a post-modernist work of art in and of itself, and contemporary art lay at its heart. The building plans called for not only the Lathrop Gallery, with its soaring ceilings designed specifically to accommodate large contemporary paintings and sculpture, but also an area at the entrance courtyard to the museum that included space reserved for a significant sculpture. In 1989, then director James Cuno commissioned Joel Shapiro to fill this space with Untitled (Hood Museum of Art), a monumental bronze sculpture that marks the entrance to the museum.

Tracing the development of the Hood’s collection since the museum’s opening, the key to its progress has been the vision of its directors. Each director has served informally as curator of contemporary art and in doing so has influenced the role that contemporary art has played on the campus. Their legacies can be traced through the very objects that constitute the Hood’s holdings. Over the years, our collections have grown in response to the ever-changing needs of larger and more diverse audiences, with a distinctive teaching mission guiding the museum and its interactions with the college’s evolving academic and social communities. Bringing together new acquisitions like El Anatsui’s Hovor and visionary purchases of the past, such as Work by Atsuko Tanaka, Modern and Contemporary Art at Dartmouth explores the legacy of contemporary art on campus and reflects the directions we hope to pursue in the future.

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