It is finally spring at Vassar. After a particularly brutal winter, students are choosing the quad and the Retreat patio over indoor spaces, long boards have risen from the depths, and prospective students, with their accompanying tour guides, are everywhere. Tours usually pass through a dorm, the College Center, and the Library. A prominent asset to any truly thorough tour of Vassar, though, is the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.
Founded in 1864, then titled the Vassar College Art Gallery, the Loeb was the first facility of its kind. A college or university had never before included an art museum in its original plans. Over the years, a rich history of academia and passion for works of art has developed through the Loeb’s staff, Vassar students, and its many visitors.
Student workers are employed as docents. The docents study a variety of subjects, ranging from Economics to English, and spend their time at the center providing visitors with tours and managing a student-run blog, Off The Wall.
Kryzel Bonifacio, a rising junior Anthropology major with Chemistry and Art History correlates, works alongside about a dozen other docents for the Loeb. Of her coworkers she said, “We all have a great passion for art.”
Bonifacio has aspirations of a career in art conservation and said she is happy to be working in such a valuable resources on campus.
As she led me around the gallery, she boasted, “We have a really nice collection. Our gallery is a an integral piece of the Hudson River Valley museum collective.” She spoke of the founding of the museum and unraveled a bit of the history of how the museum was curated. Matthew Vassar was first interested in obtaining copies of European masterpieces for the collection. Swayed by a member of the board of trustees and a close friend, Reverend Elias Lymon Magoon, Matthew Vassar became interested in and started devoting much time to the Hudson River Valley landscape collection.
Magoon had landscape-inspired pieces commissioned for the school by Frederic Edwin Church, still displayed today. Vassar purchased these from Magoon and gifted them to the collection. “Some big names we have on display are Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, Georgia O’Keefe,” she said. Bonifacio explained further, “I think what is so special about the gallery is that the pieces we have aren’t always what people think of when they think of the artist. They’re off the beaten path.” She added, “We do have gaps, but this really is an efficient teaching museum.”
The collection is easy to move through and the gallery impresses seasoned art gallery aficionados often. However, not every work had a great home before Vassar. “This piece,” Bonifacio said of a Joan Miro work, “was being stored in a garage, used as a dartboard. You can see the holes right there.” Another important group of staff for the center are the guards. Matthew Woodard, an employee of the Loeb for 15 years, works alongside two other guards.
Woodard has seen the collection grow to 14,000 works in his time here. He said, “The collection is both beautiful and historical.” Over time, the school and administration has improved the utilization and advertising of the center for students and gallery. He explained, “There’s a new position now, a liaison between faculty members and the gallery. Elizabeth Nogrady links classes and professors up with relevant pieces.”
Additionally, a student committee was founded five years ago that works in tandem with the student body and the space serves as a public museum to satisfy both museum-goers and the academic world at Vassar. Pieces are often integrated into the classroom experience in the focus gallery. That gallery is changed often and is curated by professors and Nogrady.
Said Woodard, “Once, we had an Ethiopian scroll we knew nothing about. A class came in, studied it and researched it, and we were able to take it out of storage and use the class’s research for the description.”
The gallery boasts many rooms filled with art, but the rest of the collection resides beneath the floors visitors walk on. A prominent member of those storage rooms is Vassar’s own mummy. Shep-en-min has been a part of the collections for some time but was not studied until about ten years ago.
Because Vassar does not have access to a proper case for Shep, the mummy has not been displayed. However, Woodard said the mummy has been X-Rayed recently at the Vassar Hospital. Though the mummy is unable to be displayed due to the financial burden of an appropriate means of display, many Anthropology students have had access and been able to m view it.
Deaccessioning became a reality and possibility for the Loeb in the late 2000s for the gallery. Through these new regulations, curators are able to sell works from the collection in order to buy new. In addition to purchasing works, the college receives a steady donation of works from alumnae/i private collections. These works are sometimes restored before they are put on display.
Currently, the center is hosting an exhibit titled Through the Looking Glass, Daguerreotype Masterworks from the Dawn of Photography. Said Bonifacio, “Daguerreotype was the first successful type of photography.” Daguerre was a French photographer and a friend of Samuel Morse. Morse helped bring the art to New York city and eventually larger America. “This made portraiture accessible to the middle class and became incredibly popular,” she said.
This exhibit not only displays an impressive invention, but also exemplifies the increase of accessibility for all, and correlates with the ways the Frances Lehman Loeb increases Vassar students’ and many viewers’ access to the art world.