The William Benton Museum of Art, has a permanent collection of 6,500 works of art, and serves not only as UConn’s campus art museum but as Connecticut’s State Art Museum. The Benton hosts talks, campus art walks, academic and non-academic discussions, musical performances, family programs, and many special exhibitions throughout the year. The Museum was founded in 1967, making this year the 50th Anniversary of the Museum collecting, preserving, researching, and interpreting works of art. We sat down with Nancy Stula, the Executive Director of the Benton, as she explained the role the Benton has played on campus, how they remain involved at such a large University, and the exciting celebration in honor of their Anniversary!
Q: How did you celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Benton this year?
A: Our 50th Anniversary is a tribute to what has been accomplished in the past 50 years, since 1967, and the year was capped by a 1960s party. The event was great –people dressed up, danced to live 60’s music, and we had a silent auction with items like a Tour of Sol LeWitt’s Studio, tickets to Broadway shows, and a private concert by Professor Solomiya Ivakhiv. We made a 1960’s VW van cut-out that attendees could stand behind for a photo op. We’ll be putting it out on our atrium, so people can continue to have fun with it.
Q: What exhibitions do you currently have on display?
A: Objectifying Myself, on view in the large gallery, features works by feminist artists ON LOAN from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. It includes works by significant feminist artists including Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Louise Nevelson, and Louise Bourgeois. In conjunction, we also have a second exhibition of women artists, Work It, featuring paintings by Ellen Emmett Rand from our permanent collection. Work It is a “teaser” show which will lead to a larger monographic exhibition of Rand’s work in the fall of 2018. We also have on view an installation of three-dimensional and textile work by Liz Whitney Quisgard. Quisgard actually contacted us last year because she was hoping to make a donation of a work of art. I met with her and found her work to be fabulous. I decided to add an installation of her work to the roster when we were opening two exhibitions of women’s art. She fits right in. When Quisgard was a young artist in Baltimore, she experienced a lot of rejection from the big dealers in NYC and faced a lot of the same setbacks that many of the feminist artists in the show experienced.
Q: What are you currently working on for your next exhibition?
A: I am working on an exhibition in collaboration with professors in Environmental Studies. After meeting with several professors in various fields of environmental studies and marine science, we decided to focus the exhibition on water. The next step for me was to research artists who work with the theme of water or issues pertaining to water: water usage, water pollution, documentation of waterways, etc. One artist we are considering including takes photography paper coated with chemicals and exposes the papers to the elements: submerging them in the ocean, draping them over tree branches in a rainstorm, and burying them in snow. I have also been working with UConn Studio Art Professor Kathryn Myers who will include two artists she is presenting in her courses this fall.
Q: How are you able to get students more involved with the museum?
A: We always want to get more students involved in the museum! At the Benton, we encourage students to come in to visit. We offer students a free museum membership when they share their email address, which we can then utilize to invite them to all our events. We also started a popular laptop sticker program, where students can collect art stickers—we create two each semester–that are based on the art in our exhibitions. We have creative opportunities: make your own holiday cards in December and at Valentine’s Day, journal making, open mike night at the Beanery. We also have opportunities for students to work here as gallery guards or in visitor services, and we also hire two graphic design students each year to help us with creating our promotional materials. When students are involved here they really become a part of the museum.
Q: How can professors get more involved at the Benton?
A: I have always gotten a really enthusiastic response when I approach professors in other departments to collaborate on exhibitions. When I first started at UConn in 2013, it was my goal to collaborate with as many different departments across the campus as I could. One of the first collaborations was with Professor Challa Kumar from the Chemistry department. We installed an exhibition of contemporary darkroom-based photographers who focus on the chemical process using everything from salt to daguerreotypes. Daguerreotypes are created using so many different chemicals that it’s perceived as a magic formula. The paper is exposed with a lens and then it’s put inside a box with mercury to create a silver finish. Another artist we exhibited uses a massive polaroid camera. Polaroid photos continue to change chemically as they age. I’m happy to collaborate with any of the departments on campus, but I’m especially eager to work on an exhibition that combines math and art.
Q: Do you ever consider having students’ work in your exhibitions?
A: We do work with UConn faculty on projects which allow students to curate exhibitions. Professor Françoise Dussart is teaching a course that involves students curating an exhibition here which opens this fall. The students chose works in the Museum’s collection, measured the gallery spaces, decided the placement of the works, and are writing the wall text. As for students being featured as artists, we do exhibit the work of the School of Fine Arts MFA students every year. This is a really special opportunity. For art students just getting started in their careers and looking for galleries, it is significant to be able to add a museum group show to their resumes. They can also take their work to dealers and galleries to further establish their reputation, and who knows, maybe one day they will be featured in the Benton!
Objectifying Myself: Works by Women Artists from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Work It: Women Artists, Ellen Emmet Rand, and the Business of Seeing, are both currently on exhibit at The William Benton Museum of Art through July 30, 2017. For more information, visit benton.uconn.edu.