September 20, 2001

Inside Edition: Cornell Art

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“Which one do you think was pulled by Rembrandt? Which is the better impression?,” quizzed the Director of the renowned art museum.

A moment of anxious silence fell upon the unsuspecting reporter as she searched the small, pictoral stories set side-by-side, seemingly duplicates.

“I’m going to say … this one,” she answered tentatively.

“Why?” he continued purposefully.

“Partly because it looks so similar to the others,” she answered with more certainty. He had shown her several other similar Rembrandts just moments before, and the Director had explained them to this art non-expert well.

He peered over his clear, plastic rimmed glasses, expecting more from an Ivy League writer.

“It also seems to have a more textural quality than that one,” she attempted further.

The suspense mounted and she jumped. “Am I wrong?”

“You are absolutely right. Also, the lines get shallower and break down in that one, see?,” continued the interrogator, as calm as a cucumber while she breathed a sigh of sweet relief.

This situation, played out on the fifth floor print room of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, high above the picturesque vista of Cayuga Lake, is a perfect illustration of the impressive and dignified institution that perches quietly on the corner of Cornell’s main campus. Although a reporter, who will remain nameless, may have believed that she could take a rare behind-the-scenes tour of this treasure vault without stretching her mind too far, Director Frank Robinson — formerly a professor of Art History at Wellesley, Dartmouth, and Williams — knew differently.

The impression remains, however, that precious few minds walk through the stony, sunlit caverns of the Johnson untouched by its mission to broaden visitors culturally, personally, and academically. And Mr. Robinson is the driving force that is making sure that this happens, whether the students of this fine institution are explicitly seeking it or not. Whether attending Saturday Jazz Night, a workshop on mask painting, or eating sugarcoated grapes at an opening gala, visitors to the Johnson will find both work and play, creating an entertainingly educational atmosphere for fine art.

The museum collection is housed in a landmark I.M. Pei-designed buliding, which provides a glorifiying space for about 30,000 works of art, both on the walls and in the hidden storage facilities. Upon entering the main storage room located in the basement of the scupltural, cement structure, one may be shocked by the sight of almost 500 precious works decorating metal racks and lining bins.

The functional, state-of-the-art storage facility is completely arranged by space, creating an unususal visual environment. One rack may pair a contemporary African piece next to a 19th century American one. A large, newly acquired painting by Julian Schnable — an important contemporary artist in his own right as well as the acclaimed director of Before Night Falls (2000) — set in the back of the room, seeming to wait for its debut on the pewter gallery walls.

In addition to this Schnabel, there are always new and exciting additions being made to the already extensive collection. According to Robinson, in the last year, the museum has acquired an unusual and beautiful seascape by Edward Hopper, several Picasso works, and a calligraphic handscroll by Wen Zheng Ming, a major figure in the history of painting and calligraphy.

So how does the museum staff go about choosing which of these many and masterful wallflowers will be given the spotlight? Impressively, they look to the public for ideas.

“Our responsibility is to show the full range of world art as far as we can within the limits of budget and all the rest of it … We decide on the criteria of quality, coverage, historical relevance, very often on relevance to particular courses — last year several of our shows were done by Cornell Faculty members and one of them was done by students. So we really think of curriculum, coverage, and above all the quality,” explained Robinson.

These three touchstones for selecting works become an absurd understatement when one considers the amazing array of artifacts, masterworks, and rarities already in the collection. The now renowned collection firmly cemented its strong foundation in 1948 when 3,000 valuable prints were left to the museum by a great collector named William P. Chapman Jr. 1895.

“This gift was the basis for the collection; without it, the museum would have a limited collection today,” Robinson stated graciously.

This generous donation included great works by Rembrandt, Whistler, Goya, and D