Stephanie Wiles, current director of Cornell’s Johnson Museum of Art, will helm the Yale University Art Gallery starting this July, Yale University recently announced.
Wiles, who oversaw the completion of “Cosmos” — the light sculpture built on the ceiling of the Johnson Museum in honor of former astronomy professor Carl Sagan — during her tenure, sat down with The Sun upon departure and reflected on her seven years at Cornell.
Wiles emphasized her team’s efforts to establish the museum’s role in curriculum, research and student life. She said coming to Cornell allowed her to bring together art and education in a big university setting, an idea she has always envisioned.
“There are so many research projects happening all over campus,” she said. “You could never engage with them all, but the excitement is to see what the new points of intersections might be.”
To make the Johnson Museum more active in campus research, Wiles and her colleagues applied for a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that allowed the museum to work with the faculty to connect with freshman writing seminars and offer, so far, nine courses that are each a semester long.
The vision for these courses, Wiles said, was to work “in the museum with original works of art but doing something entirely different,” which often involves interdisciplinary research with faculty across different fields.
In one course, students worked with curator Andy Weislogel and Prof. Richard Johnson, electrical and computer engineering, to analyze Rembrandt prints with computers. In another, students delved into “how looking at art may also help create new art” with poet and Prof. Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, english.
She also praised Cornell faculty and students for their willingness to take risks and experiment in the courses. This collaboration between teaching and the museum, Wiles told The Sun, “is among the projects I’m proudest of doing at Cornell.”
Wiles said that the Johnson Museum’s role also goes beyond just curriculum. She described the museum as a place for student events and Thursday night studio programs where students can find refuge from their busy digital lives and “just do something different for a while.”
“Even today, when we’re all hooked on digital and our phones, coming in to have a firsthand experience is still really a remarkable moment … you think a little differently than you would if you just saw a digital image of [a work].”
While moving to Yale will mean working in a new collection and museum culture, Wiles said she is excited to continue to work on the kind of “academic and social outreach” she has helped build at Cornell.
She also envisioned the possibility of creating new connections between Yale, Cornell and other art collections.
“I’d love to stay in touch with my colleagues here,” she said, adding that she looks forward to more collaboration between university museums, which can “create ambitious projects that freestanding or urban museums might not be able to do.”
As she prepares to leave Ithaca for New Haven, Wiles said that although she will miss some of the unique features of working at the Johnson Museum, her core mission will remain the same.
“It will be the same commitment to … museum work and training in the field,” she said. “And by this, I don’t just mean training to be a curator, but really understanding how encountering original works of art can change people’s lives and the way we learn and live.”
Wiles will leave Cornell at the end of this semester and begin her tenure at Yale on July 1.