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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

employees

can be more revelatory than a curriculum vitae or a corporate press

release. At the very least, they humanize the subject of such official

documents.

This is true of the Art Museum, Princeton University, whose new

director,

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

photographs,

and so on. Literally, up-front communication, something Taylor

strongly

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

exhibition

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

Exhibition

as Collaboration" with exhibit designer and architect Jesse A.

Reiser.

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

university

on "Modern Architecture and City Planning." His process

included

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

characteristics

of Le Corbusier’s revolutionary design theory — columns,

ribbon-windows,

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

black-and-white

silent film from 1931, with French text, featuring three homes

designed

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

influential

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

itself.

"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

credited

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

collection.

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

the successor-search.

She is tallish, with dimples and long, dark hair, a sprinkling of

freckles, and eyebrows so spectacular you forget to note her eye

color.

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

presence

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

gender,"

she said then, merely commenting that "The administration is

extremely

supportive of a new chapter in the museum’s history."

As new director of the museum, Taylor’s charge, she said, is

"primarily

to take what is an already extraordinary institution to the next

level.

My job is to put all these pieces together: the museum’s strong

tradition

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

"more

fully connect the museum to the campus and the academic

community."

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

"tremendous

program and a big part of the art museum as a resource;" devise

effective ways to interact with the campus community and

constituencies,

including faculty; and find the right fit between the museum

collection

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

department;

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

recognizing

an opportunity to do an exhibition and, of special importance to her,

to collaborate with another department to do it. With positive

response

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

public:

what strategies and devices are used; what printed/educational

materials

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

architecture.

"Well, we wanted it to be memorable, to signal some new

ideas,"

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

needs;

and the curators’ varied research interests, she says. Ideally,

they’ll

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,"

she believes.

Last fall’s purchase of "a significant group of works on

paper"

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

art."

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

curatorial

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

director

emeritus, Taylor was also familiar with Princeton’s programs and

collections;

she regards this as "a very important museum in the university

museum sphere."

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

physical

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;

accordingly,

she works to keep people informed and channels open. She is developing

a team approach to projects and exhibitions at the museum. In

designating

project managers with the capacity to problem-solve and make

recommendations,

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

effective

display, its interpretation, its accessibility. Realizing that

comprehensive

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

pastries

or jogs 20 miles a day, we would understand. In fact, maybe they’re

already talking about her lovely begonias or her unbelievable rum

cake.

— Pat Summers

Le Corbusier: An Exhibition as Collaboration Art

Museum,

Princeton University , 609-258-3788. Susan M. Taylor, director,

and Jesse A. Reiser of RUR Architecture give a lunchtime talk on

"Le

Corbusier at Princeton 14-16 November, 1935." Friday, March

2, 12:30 p.m.

The show remains on view to June 17. The museum is open Tuesday

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.

Le Corbusier at Princeton, McCormick 101, Princeton

University,

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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