THE NEWARK MUSEUM
NEWARK MUSEUM LEADERSHIP ON CURATORIAL, COLLECTIONS AND COMMUNITY
TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR HISTORY WITH THE MUSEUM AND HOW IT’S EVOLVED OVER THE YEARS THAT YOU’VE BEEN THERE.
Interim Co-Director and Chief Curator Emeritus Ulysses Dietz: The museum I came to in 1980 is long gone. In 1980 we were
physically and psychologically the same museum we had been since 1948. The collections had grown massively, but the building was stuck in the past. The new Michael Graves master plan building that was completed in 1989 opened all of our eyes to what our potential was—maybe for the first time since the Bamberger building opened in 1926. Since then, under Sam Miller and Mary Sue Price, we have come to realize exactly what we truly are: one of the greatest art collections in the United States, and New Jersey’s own treasure house of global culture.
THE MUSEUM IS A TREASURE TROVE OF INTERNATIONAL COLLECTIONS! CAN YOU SHARE A FEW FAVORITE WORKS THAT MIGHT NOT REGULARLY BE ON VIEW?
Because we don’t have the exhibition space for more than 5% of our collections at any one time, it’s hard to think of just a few.
There’s a Ming Dynasty lacquered wine table from China (17th century) that is one of maybe three in the world. And we have an amazing Portuguese topaz necklace from the 1750s, the only one in an American museum. And of course we have the greatest collection of African trade cloth in the country—none of these are on view right now, although we hope to have them in the galleries in the future.
THE NEWARK MUSEUM HAS ONE OF THE BEST TIBETAN ART COLLECTIONS IN THE WORLD. SHARE A BIT ABOUT THE HISTORY AND DEVELOPMENT OF THAT COLLECTION.
The Newark Museum is steward of one of the foremost holdings of Tibetan art in the world. The collection originated with American medical missionary Dr. Albert L. Shelton who, from 1904-1922, operated a medical mission in Kham in eastern Tibet. While returning to the United States by ocean liner in 1910, Shelton met one of the Museum’s founding Trustees, Edward N. Crane. With him, Shelton carried art objects sent out of the country for their preservation and as a fund-raising mechanism for his mission. Crane proposed that the newly established Newark Museum serve as a venue for an exhibit of the Tibetan objects. The subsequent and overwhelmingly successful 1911 exhibition led to the Museum’s purchase of Shelton’s objects, upwards of 1,000 works representing all aspects of Tibetan art and culture. Shelton received some of these works as gifts from his Tibetan medical patients who included members of Tibet’s noble families as well as farmers, traders and nomads. Shelton’s seminal collection was comprised of amazingly diverse material of the highest quality, including thangka paintings, sculpture, masks, saddles, weapons, headdresses, exquisite jewelry, monastic garments, manuscripts, textiles, vessels and gilded furnishings, comprising some of the finest items ever to have left Tibet.
After Shelton’s death in 1922, the Museum purchased three other missionary collections from northeastern Tibet. In 1935, the Museum built a temporary Tibetan-style Buddhist altar to give a meaningful setting to its extensive holdings of Tibetan sacred art. In 1938 the Museum appointed its first curator of the Oriental Collections, Eleanor Olsen, who welcomed the first Tibetan Trade Delegation, led by Tsepon Shakyabpa, to the Museum in 1948. In 1950, Ms. Olsen published the first two of a five volume publication about the Museum’s historic Tibet collections. Through these and other activities the Museum has been a leading pioneer in the field of Tibetan studies. Due to the collection’s known provenance and date of acquisition, a broad network of international scholars, artists, spiritual leaders, collectors and enthusiasts have been continually drawn to the Museum’s significant archives, collections and related exhibitions and publications. Masterpieces from the collection were loaned to Paris and Munich for the first international Tibetan art exhibition in 1977. From 1978 until 1981, two hundred and thirteen of the objects toured the United States in the travelling exhibition Tibet, A Lost World.
In 1979 and 1981, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama visited the Museum’s altar, the first of its kind in America. During his first visit, he also presented a lecture at the Museum. The mid-1980’s saw the completion of a new Museum wing, the dismantling of the 1935 altar and the creation of eight permanent Tibetan galleries. The centerpiece of the new galleries is an authentic Buddhist altar executed by a team of Tibetans and decorated by Phuntsok Dorje, a Tibetan artist trained at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim. The altar was consecrated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1990.
In 1999, the Museum presented the largest exhibit of Tibetan secular and ritual material ever mounted in the United States. From the Sacred Realm, Treasures of the Tibetan Art, provided a comprehensive record of the Tibetan civilization through a spectacular display of more than 300 historic objects. Buddhist garments, gilded furnishings, turquoise and coral encrusted jewelry, elaborate armaments of nomadic warriors–even rare, archival film were among the many highlights of the Sacred Realm exhibit. The large format publication, of the same title, accompanied the exhibit featured 256 illustrated pages and essays by renowned Tibetan scholars. This publication continues to be in international distribution and remains a beacon in the field of Tibet studies.
The Museum launched an Annual Tibetan Collection Lecture series in 2004 with presentations by acclaimed scholars. Other Tibetan cultural initiatives have included Tibetan family festivals and live performances by the Tibetan Dance and Opera Companies. In 2006, the Museum updated the storage facilities for 246 unframed thangkas in its collection. In 2010, the Museum began the process of conserving its rare, complete set of fifteen 19th century biographical thangkas depicting the life of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug order of Tibetan Buddhism. Also in 2010, the process of digitizing publication quality images for the Tibetan collection was initiated to facilitate the collection’s expanded presentation and public accessibility online. In 2011 the Museum celebrated the centennial of the Tibetan collection with the reinstallation of six galleries dedicated to the arts of Tibet and two special exhibitions.
THE NEWARK MUSEUM IS NOT ONLY HOME TO VISUAL ARTS, BUT ALSO A SPACE DEDICATED TO SCIENCE. WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO INCLUDE BOTH SCIENCE AND VISUAL ART IN THE SAME SPACE?
Since the Museum’s founding, our art and science collections have offered different ways to explore and make sense of the world around us. In the recent Rockies & Alps exhibition, visitors saw how painters captured spectacular images of the mountains, and also experienced the power of plant and rock specimens to provide perspectives on the natural world. We are looking forward to a new fall commission for the planetarium; Kambui Olujimi’s full-dome presentation of Wayward North will offer his creative, contemporary mythological vision based on actual star charts. And in our MakerSPACE and throughout our collections, we encourage visitors to consider the ways that traditional and digital technologies have provided new tools, inspiration and challenges for artists and makers.
YOUR CURRENT CO-DIRECTOR ULYSSES GRANT DIETZ HAS HAD A LONG AND WONDERFUL HISTORY WITH THE MUSEUM. CAN YOU SHARE WITH US A BIT ABOUT SOME OF THE HIGHLIGHTS OF HIS CAREER AS CURATOR OF DECORATIVE ARTS, AND CHIEF CURATOR?
The two greatest moments in his curatorial career were the Newark jewelry exhibition and book in 1997— The Glitter and the Gold: Fashioning America’s Jewelry, which told the world about the time when Newark made 90% of the gold jewelry in America; and the restoration and reinterpretation of the Ballantine House and its “House & Home” galleries in 1994. Even 24 years later, it is still one of the most cutting-edge historic houses in the entire country, even as we are looking to updating it with 21st-century technology and further preserve its historic structure.
CAN YOU SPEAK TO THE NEWARK MUSEUM EFFORTS TO SUPPORT THE LOCAL ARTS COMMUNITY? RECENT AND UPCOMING PROGRAMS THAT HAVE BEEN ESTABLISHED TO NURTURE NEWARK ARTISTS AND YOUTH?
The Museum supports local artists by periodically organizing group exhibitions that bring in local artists. The Museum also supports local artists by collaborating with other Newark arts institutions, by supporting their exhibition programs, attending studio visits, and by making the Museum’s collections available for study by artists, curators, and scholars. The Museum also supports local artists through frequent collaboration on adult public programs. During two of our flagship programs (Late Thursdays and Second Sundays) we always have an art-making activity and very often, we bring in local artists to develop and/or facilitate such activities. These programs also include talks, lectures and panels. This past May we organized our first annual Late Thursdays: Art Remix event which invited 6 local artists to reinterpret an image from the Museum’s collection in a friendly competition. The artists received exposure, compensation, and professional development with the top three popular vote winners receiving portfolio reviews with noted curators from the Museum and Columbia University. We also support local artists through our community partnerships with local arts organizations, adult courses and workshops.