Shining Light on the Wellin
Photos by John Bentham and Nancy L. Ford
The Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art is, at last and in every sense, open.
It is open to the nearly 4,300 visitors who passed through its doors in the first month after its Fallcoming dedication, and to the many thousands who will follow. It is open to classes like those of John McEnroe, the John and Anne Fischer Professor in Fine Arts, and his proseminar in art history, who find the Wellin a repository of extraordinary creative works and — just as important — a vibrant space for object-based learning. It is open not only to specialists, but to students and scholars whose interests in the arts cross boundaries and disciplines. It is open to a campus, a community and an alumni body for whom creativity is not exclusive to the arts but is integrated deeply into the values of a College dedicated to the liberal arts. “The students in the introductory level proseminar are not art history majors, yet all of them are now working on their own research projects on Renaissance and Baroque prints in the collection,” McEnroe says.
A protean expanse of visible archives, accessible storage and shifting exhibition space — “6,200 square feet of blank canvas that allows us to create new configurations and new environments,” Director Tracy Adler calls it — the museum is constantly open to re-interpretation. And ultimately, the Wellin is open to light itself; it is a passage where the very doors are windows and the air is luminous with possibility.
By day and by night, the Wellin Museum plays architecture against texture in constantly shifting ways, admitting and emitting light; even the terra cotta tile changes hue depending on the hour. The Overlook (see above slideshow) is the museum’s primary study space, seating 42, but the very works chosen for the inaugural Affinity Atlas exhibition also invite an interdisciplinary focus and engagement: Vik Muniz’s work from the 2009 Pictures of Junk series comprises photos of images made of items pulled from the huge Jardim Gramacho dump in Brazil by catadores, or trash-pickers. “There is something really important,” Adler says, “about the museum’s openness both architecturally and ideologically.”
The Archive Hall, shown under construction and as Associate Director and Curator Susanna White arranges one of its defining 27-foot-high glass cases, is at once the most visually arresting and the most traditional face of the Wellin. “In the 19th century,” Adler says, “a lot of museums were just elevated ‘cabinets of curiosity’ — and what are these big cases but large cabinets of curiosity? I very much value that, because art shouldn’t just be about what’s new, but should nod to history.”
Other spaces, too, are visible and accessible: the Object Study Gallery, open to the public as a space to examine objects not on display, and the Workshop, where display materials such as scaffolding and pedestals are prepared. Still, Adler says, “The whole idea of object-based learning is moving away from the more traditional ‘looking at slides in a dark room’ approach and toward a more hands-on approach that really gives students a sense of the reality of history — a sense of scale and age that they really don’t get” otherwise.
Indeed, scale and age are constantly in play as one passes through the Wellin, from Hew Locke’s 17-foot-tall 2009 tapestry Chariots of the Gods (pictured right, being prepared for mounting by Ian Berry, guest curator, right, and William Bitter, preparator and building manager, left) to the small objects and figurines in Case Histories: The Hidden Meaning of Objects (pictured right, curated by White), dating from the Paleolithic era to today. Such flexibility is inherent in the design of the Exhibition Gallery by architects Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti. That flexibility, in turn, complements the more conventional organization of the Archive Hall, Adler notes: “The exhibition space … is truly this open, blank slate. You can put walls up, you can break it up and do two shows, you can do all kinds of things with it. Each show will create a different environment.”
Adler, with President Joan Hinde Stewart and Daniel W. Dietrich ’64 — who was also honored at Fallcoming as 2012’s Volunteer of the Year — notes that the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art “can really be a portal to the institution,” and she imagines the role it will play in Hamilton’s future: “expanding upon the notion of what an artist is, what art is, and making it more inclusive.”
Wendy Wellin, on the other hand, looked to the past in her remarks at the museum’s dedication, lauding her husband Keith’s “homage to his wonderful parents” in providing the cornerstone gift for the museum and praising those who have donated works of art to the College. “These items,” she said, “are gleaming examples of our culture and our history, and are the very threads that sustain and ennoble our civilization.”
Students and teachers, though, can feel the museum’s impact most dramatically in the present moment. “The Wellin is a game-changer,” McEnroe says. “Teaching and learning become experiential, and the museum becomes an integral part of the educational environment.”
Whether observing works or quite literally entering the frame themselves, members of the Hamilton community are already finding the Wellin a passage to new connections. “It’s not just about art,” Adler says. “It’s about what art does for you as part of your education.”