Corrections or additions?
This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the February 28,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Art Museum’s New Light
You can sometimes tell a lot about a new executive
by listening to the people in the company. Off-hand comments by
can be more revelatory than a curriculum vitae or a corporate press
release. At the very least, they humanize the subject of such official
This is true of the Art Museum, Princeton University, whose new
Susan Taylor, is as interesting to hear about informally as in an
interview situation. The signs of her presence at the museum start
with, well, they start with signs — and go from there.
Within a few steps of the front door, museum visitors encounter a
sign that welcomes them and imparts housekeeping information —
where to hang coats and leave umbrellas, what about taking
and so on. Literally, up-front communication, something Taylor
believes in. Next, flanking the entrance to the museum shop: on the
right, a vertical-hanging pennant telling what’s where in the museum;
on the left, a giant replica of the innovative columnar invitation
to "Le Corbusier at Princeton: 14-16 November 1935," the
mounted by Taylor and colleagues that will run through June 17. On
Friday, March 2, at 12:30 p.m., Taylor gives a talk on "An
as Collaboration" with exhibit designer and architect Jesse A.
Sixty-six years ago, the distinguished and influential architect,
painter, and city planner, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known
as Le Corbusier, spent three days in Princeton, lecturing at the
on "Modern Architecture and City Planning." His process
drawing "large, 10-foot colored frescoes," as he described
them later, and these drawings are now on view, annotated and under
glass, in the exhibition gallery. A quotation in vivid chartreuse
ink, running the length of the wall, describes the process in his
own words. Nearby on a pedestal, a series of four Plexiglas models
of his Villa Savoye illustrates, through color components, key
of Le Corbusier’s revolutionary design theory — columns,
roof gardens, and open plan. Along one long wall, a back-lit display
of movable, colored panels, each bears a pithy quotation or provides
information about his work.
At one end of the gallery, a video monitor runs a short
silent film from 1931, with French text, featuring three homes
by Le Corbusier. A viewer can sit in a Corbu-designed chair to watch
it, and peruse, from a boxy white table in the center, various
and manifestos by and about Le Corbusier, including laminated copies
of "The Daily Princetonian" for the days of his visit in 1935.
Altogether, the "joies essentielles," or basic pleasures that
he talked about are realized in this set-up: for visitors wondering
about his context, there’s the printed matter on walls, panels, and
publications; for "visual people," there are the two grand
drawings and the building models — and the exhibition design
"Oh, she’s really having fun!" So said a docent about Susan
Taylor, and the recent addition of two works of art for which he
her, recently hung in the contemporary art galleries. With that, he
wheeled away from the docents’ desk in the museum shop to take a look
at Gerhard Richter’s large oil, "Janus," and a Chuck Close
portrait. Taylor was later to explain that these are short-term loans,
but still, they’re there, swelling the ranks, where contemporary art
has traditionally deferred to more classical elements of the
Now, with the times obviously a-changin’, there’s even talk around
that contemporary art might move up front, closer to the entrance.
That seemed like a good idea to the docents on duty.
"She’s different," the security guard says. "With the
ones before her, something like the sign (at the entrance, with museum
rules) wasn’t a high priority." He seems pleased to point out
that the sign came from security guards’ advice. "She met with
us. The others didn’t have meetings till there was a problem."
Starting last August, Taylor became "the new director" at
the Art Museum, Princeton University. She succeeds Allen Rosenbaum
who retired in 1998. Peter C. Bunnell served as acting director during
She is tallish, with dimples and long, dark hair, a sprinkling of
freckles, and eyebrows so spectacular you forget to note her eye
Articulate, as might be expected, she suggested during an October
get-acquainted interview that one reason for her selection was her
interest in contemporary art — "Its absence is felt; its
is desired," she said. At the same time, she gave short shrift
to the observation that she had moved in to head an institution run,
until her arrival, exclusively by men. "I guess I am the first
woman. Coming from a woman’s college, you don’t think about
she said then, merely commenting that "The administration is
supportive of a new chapter in the museum’s history."
As new director of the museum, Taylor’s charge, she said, is
to take what is an already extraordinary institution to the next
My job is to put all these pieces together: the museum’s strong
of scholarly exhibitions; a very fine collection; talented staff;
enormous resources in the university infrastructure." And, she
added then — prophetically, it seems — that she would
fully connect the museum to the campus and the academic
Which has led, among other examples of what we’ll call "internal
outreach," to the museum’s monthly jazz nights for graduate and
undergraduate students and others in the academic community. "The
museum can seem isolated from its on-campus audiences," Taylor
says. So, the three jazz nights since November have attracted 150
or more people. Gallery talks have accompanied two of the three.
With a new associate director now in place, Taylor’s team-building
continues. Next up: a curator of education, who will guide and lead
the corps of museum docents that she described earlier as a
program and a big part of the art museum as a resource;" devise
effective ways to interact with the campus community and
including faculty; and find the right fit between the museum
and the community at large — be the bridge between the scholarly
community and the general public. In the first interview, Taylor had
drawn this picture: The museum could be a point of intersection for
a number of campus entities, including the art and archaeology
the school of architecture; the studio program.
Case, or exhibition, in point: the current Le Corbusier
show. Hearing from the architecture school that his 1935 drawings
were stored in the museum, Taylor took a look at them, quickly
an opportunity to do an exhibition and, of special importance to her,
to collaborate with another department to do it. With positive
from the school dean, she hired Reiser, who "works in New York
and teaches here" to design the installation.
"We realized it would be very much a didactic exhibition because
the drawings require a good deal of interpretation," she says.
She sees the how of a show as crucial in its presentation to the
what strategies and devices are used; what printed/educational
are produced, and so on. The reading area in the Corbu gallery was
one outcome of these deliberations, as were chairs situated around
the drawings on display. So, too, was hiring a graphic designer for
the wall and table quotes, and the innovative invitation whose look
is replicated all over, including the museum shop — where the
now-familiar tube is stuffed with white Le Corbusier tee shirts and
surrounded with myriad materials about him and other icons of modern
"Well, we wanted it to be memorable, to signal some new
Taylor says, low-key.
The exhibition schedule she and her staff are building now must take
into account the museum’s audiences; the university’s curricular
and the curators’ varied research interests, she says. Ideally,
plan two-three years ahead; and she already anticipates an exhibition
of Roman sculpture and another that will focus on a theme of Van Dyke.
And, "to energize our audiences and engage our students, we should
use contemporary art as a way of examining current ideas and culture.
It’s also an opportunity to engages a broader number of people,"
Last fall’s purchase of "a significant group of works on
by sculptor Richard Serra, was Taylor’s first purchase of contemporary
art for the museum. Installation of his "Weight and Measure"
(1995-6) series coincided with the November dedication of Serra’s
monumental "The Hedgehog and the Fox," a work she calls a
"bold statement about Princeton’s commitment to contemporary
Serra, she says, is probably the finest living American sculptor,
with work that’s provocative in nature.
A native of Buffalo, New York, Taylor cites that city’s Albright-Knox
Art Gallery as her "formative experience" with 20th-century
art. She earned her B.A. from Vassar, and during graduate work in
art history at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, she did some work at
the Guggenheim. As a fellow of the National Endowment of the Arts,
she used her fluency in Italian to work with directly artists who
were part of an exhibition. Later, she worked in the museum’s
department, gaining overall "a wonderful exposure to American
and international contemporary art."
After 12 years at Wellesley College as director of the Davis Museum
and Cultural Center, where she oversaw acquisitions, exhibitions,
and programs, as well as building construction, Taylor was ready for
a new challenge: The Art Museum, Princeton University. Professionally
acquainted for some time with Allen Rosenbaum, the institution’s
emeritus, Taylor was also familiar with Princeton’s programs and
she regards this as "a very important museum in the university
Enlightened executives in any field would recognize Taylor’s approach
to her new administrative role. To begin with, she met with every
member of her staff, inviting their perspectives on the museum, their
ideas on needs and priorities. Only then did she step back, consider
what all she had learned, and start to plan. It should be noted that
her span of responsibility encompasses a staff of six curators, the
museum’s publications office, the registrar’s myriad functions, press
relations, volunteers, and security.
Moving further afield, Taylor also reached out to Princeton’s academic
community — a proponent of collaborative project work, she knew
they would inevitably contribute to museum programs. With both
proximity and curriculum connections to the museum, members of the
art and archaeology department were included here. By now, Taylor’s
pattern calls for alternating weekly meetings with her staff and with
the curators. "Information is power," she believes;
she works to keep people informed and channels open. She is developing
a team approach to projects and exhibitions at the museum. In
project managers with the capacity to problem-solve and make
she’s empowering the staff to do what they do best.
Quick to say she is not herself an artist, or even a collector of
art, Taylor nonetheless occupies a position wholly wrapped up with
fine art — its acquisition and variety, its safe storage and
display, its interpretation, its accessibility. Realizing that
charge also involves her nurturing and facilitating the efforts of
a staff that shares her mission. If, away from the museum’s intense
focus on art, Taylor grows prize sunflowers or bakes exquisite
or jogs 20 miles a day, we would understand. In fact, maybe they’re
already talking about her lovely begonias or her unbelievable rum
— Pat Summers
Princeton University , 609-258-3788. Susan M. Taylor, director,
and Jesse A. Reiser of RUR Architecture give a lunchtime talk on
Corbusier at Princeton 14-16 November, 1935." Friday, March
2, 12:30 p.m.
through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free tours
of the collection are every Saturday at 2 p.m.
609-258-3788. Mardges Bacon of Northeastern University gives a lecture
on "Modernism and Its Reception: Le Corbusier at Princeton."
Free. Tuesday, April 10, 4:30 p.m.
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