Grant helps Amherst College bolster art museum programs
Daily Hampshire Gazette

In a recession that is ravishing campus resources and has forced one university to close its museum, Amherst College is expanding its art hub, the Mead Art Museum.

On Wednesday, Amherst College announced it will add a full-time staff member to help improve collaborations among faculty, who can use the college's art collection as a teaching tool, and the museum.

The college also recently expanded its hours during the academic year from the standard 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. to midnight on most days.

Meanwhile, this week Brandeis University of Waltham announced it will close its 47-year-old Rose Art Museum - known for its collection of modern art - and sell its estimated $350 million, 6,000-piece collection in an effort to offset the college's endowment and other losses.

Brandeis is attempting to close a budget gap that could grow as large as $10 million. The Jewish college is also bracing for a drop in gifts as some of its major donors lost money in the Bernard Madoff scandal, according to the Boston Globe.

Brandeis' news shocked the local college art community and has encouraged museum staff to think harder about how their museums can contribute to academics and the larger community.

"It's such sad news and such a surprise," said Elizabeth Barker, director and chief curator of Amherst's Mead Art Museum.

"We're now thinking about our role as really the people who provide access to a vital teaching resource," Barker said. "We think of our art collection as the visual counterpart to the library."

Amherst College is able to add another staff person, a full-time coordinator of college programs, through receipt of a $500,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant. Amherst hired Susan Anderson, a researcher at Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum, as interim coordinator of college programs. A national search for a permanent coordinator will follow, college officials said. Anderson began serving in her interim role Monday.

In addition to the new position, the Mellon grant will allow Amherst to support course-development seminars for Five College faculty to shape strategies for integrating Amherst's art collection into classes. The money will also provide stipends for faculty guest curators of major art exhibits and two-year post-baccalaureate curator fellowships for promising Five College graduates from any field of study.

Barker said the Mellon grant alone isn't keeping the museum's doors open. Like many colleges across the country and in the Valley, Amherst College is suffering from endowment losses and increased demand for financial aid.

Amherst College's endowment lost $442 million between July and December - or roughly 26 percent of its value. Other area colleges have lost 25 to 30 percent of their endowments.

Also trimming

To save money at the Mead Art Museum, Barker said a few staff positions are going unfilled and the museum has put some formerly paper publications and communications solely online. The museum is also holding off on updating equipment..

"We're penny-pinching like everyone else," Barker said.

Area colleges may be "penny pinching," but, unlike Brandies, they're keeping their museums open and focusing even more on how to integrate their collections into everyday classes. In the Valley, Smith, Amherst and Mount Holyoke colleges have full museums. The University of Massachusetts and Hampshire College maintain galleries.

In the past few years, Mount Holyoke College ramped up its efforts to pair faculty with museum resources, said Mary Jo Curtis, a campus spokeswoman.

The Smith College Museum of Art, founded shortly after the college was created in the late 1800s, maintains links between classrooms and collection resources, said Jessica Nicoll, director and chief curator at Smith's Museum of Art.

Smith also boasts one of the few programs offering undergraduates hands-on experience in art preservation.

Brandeis' choice "will irreparably change the identity of the school and resources that make its education distinctive," said Nicoll.

Nicoll also questioned what Brandeis' decision to close its museum could mean for the rest of the college art community faced with looming budget cuts.

"It's a shocking development for the field and its sets a new precedent," she said.