Interviews

So You Want to Start a College Art Museum…

The Kruizenga Art Museum (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
A flat roof and succinctly curving footprint distinguish the Kruizenga Art Museum from other buildings on the Hope College campus. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

HOLLAND, Mich. — When I first heard that Hope College was building a new art museum my first thought was: Why? It’s sort of a nice idea, but is there a real need for a tiny museum at a small, Calvinist college in a city almost no one has heard of? Why would it interest anyone besides past and present students and faculty?

Instead of being dashed off by a starchitect, the Kruizenga Art Museum was designed by Hope alumnus Matt VanderBorgh, who is based in The Hague. With only 3,500 square feet of exhibition space, it’s miniscule compared to many commercial galleries. Its $7.8 million cost of construction and ongoing maintenance is dwarfed by prices paid for many contemporary paintings. Nor does it claim a world-class collection.

The museum is named for Dr. Richard Kruizenga and his late spouse, Margaret Feldmann Kruizenga, two Dallas-based Hope alumni who thought the college’s art collection had educational potential. After a tour of the building before its September 9 opening and a talk with its director, Charles Mason, I decided they were right. If anything, the project could provide an object lesson in the smart use of slender resources to achieve positive cultural change.

Kruizenga Director Charles Mason and preparator Evan Smeege lift a vitrine into place. (click to enlarge)
Kruizenga Director Charles Mason and preparator Evan Smeege lift a vitrine into place. (click to enlarge)

My initial sense of how well things could work came from Mason himself. An Asian art specialist, he holds a bachelor’s from Cambridge and a master’s from UC-Berkeley. He has solid experience in academic art museums — as a curator at both Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College and the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida, Gainesville. But the suit I was expecting didn’t show up. Instead, Mason was wearing nondescript work clothes, dressed for a day of prep. A full-service director.

What struck me next, as we started walking around, was the clear flow and human scale of the space. It was comfortable, and the shape of the galleries — a bit like fat commas — prevents the place from seeming simply plain. The polished concrete floor flows throughout, contemporary and economical.

About half of the works on view would pass muster in many museums. A handful are real standouts and for the most part are pieces Mason either bought or obtained as gifts. But he seemed confident that even minor works could be used as springboards for original research — or at least for lively conversations among diverse participants. My impression of the project’s promise was reinforced by a brief Q and A with the new director

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South gallery with editioned works by Victor Vasarely, foreground, and Susan Rothenberg, at far left
South gallery with editioned works by Victor Vasarely, foreground, and Susan Rothenberg, at far left

Janet Tyson: Academic art museums are viewed sometimes as occupying a vague, in-between position in terms of their bases of support, and the purposes and publics they serve. What is this museum’s purpose and who is its public?

CM: We’re not in a vague place if we achieve the college’s primary goal — to store and display the art collection so that it has educational value. The museum serves a mix of collection management and education purposes.

But we also can reach out to a broader, off-campus public by putting a face on the college’s programs — say, Women’s Studies — that otherwise could be invisible. Off-campus visitors will see how departments from around the college use objects as visual documents, and as the focus of research in and of themselves. This gives everyone a better understanding of how each of us, coming from different backgrounds, sees the same things in different ways. We can organize exhibitions around themes addressed by courses on English literature, on history or psychology. If we function as I think we can, we’ll be offering people opportunities for transformative experiences. I’ve seen it happen.

We also have solid financial support: an endowment. We don’t need to charge admission or resort to membership as ways of raising money. I think that puts us, and academic museums in general, in a stronger position than many small private museums. We have the resources to work with other museums in the area, with local schools, with artists.

JT: What was the collection like when you got here?

Likely the rarest work in the collection is this sculpture of Mongolian Palden Lhamo (18th century), incense paste and pigments, h: 18 in, gift of David Kamansky and Gerald Wheaton. (photo courtesy of the Kruizenga Art Museum)
Likely the rarest work in the collection is this sculpture of Mongolian Palden Lhamo (18th century), incense paste and pigments, h: 18 in, gift of David Kamansky and Gerald Wheaton. (photo courtesy the Kruizenga Art Museum) (click to enlarge)

CM: The collection came together pretty randomly but has cohesive areas of focus. And gifts have been rolling in since the building project was announced. There’s also a small acquisitions budget that I’ve been using to buy pieces that complement gifts and fill some gaps. About 50% of the collection is European and American, and about half is Asian and African. That’s going to surprise people around here, who’re used to seeing Western art. I’ve also acquired more pieces by women and African-American artists, and I’m looking at adding Mexican art.

JT: Holland has a large Mexican-American community, so that’s good to hear. How does this diversity fit in with what the college is about? I’ve heard that Hope used to be relatively liberal but has become less so.

CM: I think the college is becoming more concerned with developing a multicultural student body. A diverse collection can help with that. We can have discussions develop around works — have students and faculty from all around the campus write multiple wall texts for them, offering diverse perspectives. There’s no one, right way to talk about art.

JT: Did you have any say in how the building was designed and programmed?

Another vew of the south gallery, with a seascape by Hendrik Willem Mesdag in the foreground
Another vew of the south gallery, with a seascape by Hendrik Willem Mesdag in the foreground

CM: Margaret Kruizenga and her husband and college leadership worked with the architect to develop a distinctive design. A team of faculty and staff selected the plan for a curved, modern form

I had a say on the interior walls, which were going to be curved surfaces. I suggested that a series of flat panels, like faceting, would work better for hanging pictures. There also were plans for windows. That would have eaten up wall space and made it almost impossible to show works on paper. The windows were eliminated, but there’s plenty of daylight from the glass at the entrance.

JT: How do you think people will respond to the museum?

CM: I think they’re going to be surprised. It’s not everyday a new art museum opens around here. We’re going to provide an experience of art that people just can’t get from lectures or online images. Past Present East West, our opening exhibition, has about 70 pieces, and our study collection will allow students to actually handle objects. I’m excited about it. Starting a museum from the ground up is pretty exciting.

An early aquatint by Louise Nevelson and two etchings by Michael Ayrton share wall space. (click to enlarge)
An early aquatint by Louise Nevelson shares wall space with two etchings by Michael Ayrton. (click to enlarge)

The Kruizenga Art Museum (271 Columbia Avenue, Holland, Michigan) opened on September 9 with the exhibition Past Present East West.

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