Many students may be surprised to know that the University owns works by Durer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Goya, Renoir, Pisarro, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Miró, Ernst, Arp, Magritte, Kandinsky and many others—all of which are stored in a vault in the basement of the Davison Art Center. This collection of 18,000 prints and 6,000 drawings and photographs, many of them gifts of George Davison ’22, seem likely to remain in the vault as plans to build a campus museum were cancelled in the fall.
“This is a collection that any museum in America would want,” said Clare Rogan, curator of the Davison Art Center.
Plans for a museum housed in the old squash court building next to the Usdan University Center had been in development for more than a decade. The museum was meant to bring together the University’s four major collections: the works on paper, which the University’s website calls “one of the two or three most important collections at any American university,” the Asian objects at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies, the world musical instruments, currently not on public display but housed in the Music Department and the archaeological materials in Exley Science Center.
The museum was not only meant to make these collections available to the public, but was also supposed to offer improved teaching facilities for the classes that frequently view them.
Alan Rubacha, the former project manager for the museum, told the Argus in February 2005 that the renovation of the squash courts was valuable in and of itself.
“I believe that the transformation of this building into the University museum is the ultimate restoration of an artifact that can be as much a part of the museum experience as the work that will go on inside,” he said.
Without the museum, the University lacks more than exhibition space according to Professor of Art History John Paoletti, who held the title of Museum Director from January 2005 until 2007.
“We are completely lacking storage space, as well as temperature and humidity controls needed for such a phenomenal collection,” he said, adding that the lack of controls often prevents the University from showing art borrowed from other institutions.
Rogan noted that the Art Center’s ability to preserve its collection has improved substantially in recent years, thanks to the reinforcement of the building’s walls and upgrades in the climate control system.
“But we are out of space,” she acknowledged, referring the lack of storage capacity in the vaults, which has dramatically slowed the Art Center’s longstanding program of acquisitions.
A committee was formed in 1997 to plan the museum and then to raise the $26 million necessary to fund the project, but Paoletti says that despite some large contributions, including half a million dollars from Rick Segal ’75 and Monica Mayer Segal ’78 in 2005, the administration decided that money was not being raised quickly enough.
Paoletti believes that the project suffered from competition with other new facilities, such as Usdan and the forthcoming Molecular and Life Sciences Building.
“I thought they could all coexist,” he said. “I never regarded them as competitors.”
Vice President for Public Affairs Justin Harmon confirmed that financial difficulties ultimately sank the project.
“Michael Roth, who has considerable experience with conservation and exhibition challenges, believes more cost-effective solutions can be found to preserve and display the existing collections,” he said.
Roth explained his decision to nix the museum plans.
“I don’t think a museum is a good thing for Wesleyan,” Roth asserted. “We should have a first-rate exhibition program, but that’s different from the museum project. At this point, if there was important art, it would be given to an established museum.”
Donors who have pledged money for the museum are being given the option of having their gifts diverted to other projects or returned.
Rogan said that a new committee has had preliminary meetings with Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Joe Bruno in order to investigate other ways to house and protect the University’s collections.
Regarding the fate of the building, Harmon said, “The squash building will be adapted for reuse, possibly for office space.”