Princeton University Art Museum director James Steward stands amid a glass, steel, and bronze sculpture by Doug and Mike Starn that has graced the museum lawn since September 2015. The work weighs almost eight tons.
Peter Murphy
A once-sleepy museum has taken on new life

What looks like Japanese anime greets visitors when they step into the Princeton University Art Museum. The massive painting — nearly 12-by-12 feet — pictures colorful cartoonish creatures against an electric-blue sky. Smaller characters — some bloblike, some pointy — float all around. 

A closer look might raise questions about the appearance of jagged teeth (are some of the creatures being eaten?). Visitors might wonder how the painting is related to other works in the gallery — a collection of neon-colored Warhols or a wall farther back filled with black cut-paper silhouettes in a genteel 18th–century style. Those who read the labels will understand the one constant among all the gallery’s works: catastrophe. 

Takashi Murakami’s painting “Tan Tan Bo — In Communication” is a response to the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami that led to the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. The Warhols all depict the electric chair, in a meditation on death. Unsettling acts are taking place in those Kara Walker silhouettes. Matthew Day Jackson’s large, blackened aerial view of Dresden — evoking the city after the Allied bombings during World War II — is not just a bold visual statement: It is the charred surface of thousands of individually affixed pieces of wood that had been set on fire. 

“Invariably when we hang this, or by the time it comes down, we see little pieces of ash on the floor,” says the museum’s director, 56-year-old James Steward. The artist “sees that kind of continuing decay as part of the point of the piece.”

The exhibition, on view until July 10, takes advantage of the museum’s bright opening space while being mildly, unmistakably subversive. It offers no explanation of the overall theme, forcing visitors to draw their own connections — and ensuring they won’t read about the subject and run away. That blend of practical and pedagogical in the exhibit — for which Steward served as lead curator — is a distillation of his seven-year tenure at the museum. 

More than one museum visitor has said, “Who is this guy Basquiat? What in the world? That looks like junk,” says David Tierno, a past president of Friends of the Art Museum, referring to another piece in the exhibit, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Poison Oasis.” Or as Jeff Nathanson, executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton puts it, with some glee, the prominence of contemporary art has left some community members “shocked.” 

“I didn’t really want to use terms like, ‘Some museums are snobbish or elitist,’ but in fact that is true,” Nathanson says. Princeton’s museum, he suggests, doesn’t fit that mold: “In spite of his pedigree, James is really open to these new innovations.” 

Steward visited his first museum when he was 6 months old — his mother, who trained as an artist, remembers toting him into the National Gallery in London. His father’s assignments with the Foreign Service took the family to India, Bangkok, and Japan, and after boarding school in New England, Steward entered the University of Virginia, majoring in history and French until a semester in Paris prompted him to consider a career in museums. In college, he studied Italian renaissance painting with one of the former “Monuments Men,” Allied soldiers during World War II whose assignment was to save Europe’s artistic treasures. 

“That sense of how personal that was, that sense of a relationship to art that was very tangible and with a kind of sense of accountability that one had to take action — that was a very powerful message for me,” he says. 

In graduate school, first at New York University and then at Oxford, he focused on 18th- and 19th-century European art, but resisted being pigeonholed to a specific place and time. His first job, at the modest-sized University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, allowed him to dive into projects as diverse as Chinese calligraphy and ancient Greece.

Arriving at Princeton in 2009 from the University of Michigan, where he was museum director, Steward understood his primary mandate as: Make Princeton’s museum more essential to more audiences. He quickly realized that the museum had been “somewhat inward-looking — very much focused on a partnership with the art and archaeology department.” Tierno recalls a “sleepy old place” that was not drawing many visitors; people sometimes expressed surprise that Princeton had a museum at all, let alone one of the largest university collections in the country. 

Even museum officials weren’t sure of the size of Princeton’s treasure. When Steward arrived at Princeton, a press release heralded a collection of 70,000 objects. He quickly realized that the number was outdated, even arbitrary. A full inventory of the collection had not been completed in decades. “We were opening boxes that had probably not been opened since the work came to Princeton in the 1930s,” Steward says. The staff discovered dozens or even hundreds of items in some of those boxes.

Last year, the museum finally finished the count — digitizing along the way, a project that continues. There were more than 97,000 objects. Officials worried that putting the collection online might minimize requests to study real objects, but as the project proceeded the past two years, those inquiries spiked by 700 percent. Steward and others have proposed a new museum building to expand and improve displays. 

Steward immediately tried to forge connections with other institutions and academic departments. He remembers visiting the music department early in his tenure to introduce himself and invite collaboration. The professors responded with silence. 

Finally, a faculty member spoke up. “Forgive us,” he said. “We’ve never had this kind of conversation before.” The museum has gone on to partner with members of the music department multiple times, and currently is working on a project about the Bolshoi with Professor Simon Morrison *97. 

Word caught on. To encourage broader collaboration, Steward began offering grants (now for $10,000 each) to faculty members who designed classes around the museum’s collection. So far, the museum has awarded 22. As a Princeton student in art and archaeology, Zoe Kwok *13 always viewed the museum as a valuable resource for her studies — but little more than that. But as the museum’s assistant curator of Asian art, she has taught a session of a poetry class, showing images of art that could become inspiration for poems. “A number of students wrote to me afterward and asked for advice and wanted to get images for works that they were working on,” says Kwok. She credits Steward for the expanded focus: He “has a very deep and nuanced understanding of what a modern university art museum should be — and that is, it should be a center for arts on campus.” 

Steward says he recently heard from a student who came to Princeton to study engineering but decided to switch to art history for graduate school after experiencing the museum. “That’s not going to happen all the time, and if it did, I’d have to start apologizing to a lot of parents,” he says, grinning. 

The director began expanding outreach to alumni, accepting invitations to speak to gatherings across the world. (“I’ve never seen a microphone I didn’t like,” he says.) He worked with the development office to identify graduates who may have majored in unrelated fields but developed an art interest later in life, and created publications to reach art lovers. 

When Steward arrived in 2009, the medieval room was used for storage. Now, stained glass filters colored light through the gothic-inspired windows, and visitors can walk through stone cloister gateways.
Courtesy Princeton University Art Museum

Elizabeth Lemoine ’09 was hired to help think of ways to draw students in. The answer was easy: free food. At the first event, in 2009, the museum deployed tables from about 20 Princeton restaurants throughout the building, hoping to lure students past the opening gallery deeper into the museum. Organizers had hoped for about 600 people — they got more than 2,000, and made the Nassau Street Sampler an annual event. On the advice of a new student advisory board, the museum began hosting film screenings and gallery talks on Thursday nights. Exhibitions were scheduled year-round, a stark contrast with previous practice, when the temporary galleries “went dark” between the end of classes and October.

In 2015–16, partially on the strength of blockbuster exhibits like “Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection,” the museum drew nearly 184,000 visitors — up from approximately 96,000 about 10 years ago. (The Cézanne exhibition included watercolors that can only be exhibited about every five years because of light sensitivity.) But Steward has been equally open to obscure projects, like devoting three galleries to an exhibition centered around a single late 13th- or 14th-century Japanese tea jar with its own name: Chigusa. The Chigusa was produced in China as an ordinary container, but achieved prominence in 16th-century Japan, where it was recognized as an outstanding and unusually beautiful jar for storing tea leaves. 

Even art history professor Andrew Watsky, who co-curated the Chigusa exhibit, was a bit surprised that Steward signed on so quickly. “This was a fairly esoteric exhibition, not one that is like an eye candy — eye-popping, visually resplendent, or [on an] immediately accessible subject,” says Watsky, who built a course around the exhibition. 

Steward saw that exhibit, which included diary excerpts mentioning Chigusa as well as other accoutrements of Japanese tea rituals, as a no-brainer: “It was a way of getting at something much larger about both Japanese art and culture,” he says, adding that he was “simply blown away by the peculiar beauty of Chigusa as a vessel — a kind of Mona Lisa that became famous despite itself.” In an example of Stewart’s push toward partnerships with other museums, the Chigusa show was mounted in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. 

Sometimes Steward’s focus has been closer to home. The 2013–14 exhibition “New Jersey as Non-Site” gave the sometimes-maligned state credit for becoming “perhaps the key locus for the avant garde in American art in the 1960s and 1970s,” Steward says. A New York Times review said: “As wry as it is revealing, the Princeton show is deserving of the attention of a much bigger institution. (Paging the Whitney.)” 

The museum has added 1,521 works of art during Steward’s tenure (purchasing 566, with the others donated), with two main goals, Steward explains. First, he wanted to build strengths “in areas we saw both need and opportunity” — including works by women artists of the middle to late 20th century, African American artists, Indian art (especially in miniature painting), and photography not originally intended as fine art. 

Other acquisitions “elevate the field,” he says, “and represent opportunities that won’t come again.” That includes Angelica Kauffmann’s 18th-century portrait “Sarah Harrop (Mrs. Bates) as a Muse,” a rare portrait of a self-made woman — a singer — by a professional female artist. The sellers, fiercely private, brought the painting in 2010 to a private club in Dublin, wrapped in a horse blanket and covered in layers of discolored varnish. “Later, I was able to figure out that the sellers were the Irish family of Lord Snowdon, former husband to Britain’s Princess Margaret,” Steward says. 

Last year, John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, assumed a new curatorial position endowed by a $4.5 million gift from Allen Adler ’67 and his wife, Frances Beatty Adler. Elderfield is charged with enhancing the museum’s program in European art from the medieval to modern periods.

Steward’s innovations cost money, and the museum’s operating budget in 2015–16 was about $16.2 million, up from just over $10 million a decade ago. Nearly 30 full-time positions have been added during the last decade, bringing the staff to 85.

Yet the director asserts that there is more that can be done. The central hub of the main floor is like a choose-your-own-adventure game, with six wide doorways leading to different galleries. It limits space in a building that’s already crowded, with 30,000 square feet for exhibitions (only 3 percent of the holdings can be on display at any one time).

“It sort of provokes you to make your own choice,” Steward explains during a recent building tour, contemplating the multiple doorways with the air of someone determined to be cheerful. 

In a gallery devoted to modern art, Steward’s face clouds. Wall cutouts abound. Extra doorways sprout like weeds. A dropped ceiling recedes at the edge of the room, creating an alley of elevation but it isn’t high enough — the gallery can fit only nine out of the 10 stacked copper-and-green glass cubes that form a work by American artist Donald Judd. Judd’s estate had to grant permission for Steward to install the incomplete work. “This is not a compromise one makes happily, but I think better to show the concept of the work,” Steward says. Opposite the Judd piece, a vent runs across the bottom of the wall, and a large fire-hose metal panel takes up another few feet. The art is wedged between them. Steward winces.

Then there is the dimness of the adjacent American gallery. While technology now exists to waterproof skylights and modulate light, that was not always the case. And so all the windows are blocked. “I think the architecture is much too inward-looking,” Steward says. 

In October, as part of Princeton’s strategic-planning process, a humanities task force proposed a new museum building, ideally in the same central location. Advocates note that in 2014, Harvard completed a $350 million renovation by Renzo Piano, while two years earlier, Yale spent $135 million to nearly double the exhibition space in its main art museum. Other universities also have expanded their museums in recent years through multimillion-dollar projects, many featuring starchitects; Steward himself oversaw the fundraising and construction of a new museum building at Michigan.

In April, Steward received the official response from Nassau Hall. President Eisgruber ’83 and Dean of the Faculty Deborah Prentice agreed “in principle” but noted that “whether or not we can build the museum will depend heavily on the level of donor interest.” They cautioned that any investment in a new museum building needed to be considered in the context of other demands and facilities underway, including the new performing-arts complex. 

Steward says that the museum is “incredibly successful given the constraints we have. Look how much more successful we could be if those constraints are removed.” To demonstrate, he leads a visitor to the only renovated classroom in the museum, adjacent to the medieval, Byzantine, and Islamic art gallery. When Steward arrived, the medieval room was used for storage. Linoleum tiles covered the floor. The dropped ceiling cut off the top of the clerestory windows. 

Now the room is filled with natural light. Visitors walk through stone cloister gateways and encounter centuries-old columns. Stained glass filters in colored light through the gothic-inspired windows that pick up the architecture from the surrounding campus. It is Steward’s favorite part of the building, he says.

For once, he says, “you feel like you’re in Princeton.”  

Sophia Hollander ’02 is a journalist based in New York City.

VIEW James Steward’s “Five Works Not To Be Missed at the Princeton University Art Museum.”