College art museum a treasure to community

MIDDLEBURY — As the weather turns chillier, it’s time to migrate indoors. And there are few holiday traditions more time-honored than visiting the museum.
Those who live in and around Addison County’s shire town are lucky enough to have a first-class museum housed in a center that also hosts hundreds of performances each year, many by internationally renowned artists. It is, of course, the Middlebury College Museum of Art.
“There’s something here for everyone,” said museum Director Richard Saunders.
With a permanent collection of more than 3,500 objects and rotating traveling exhibits, the museum provides world-class art from ancient coins to contemporary photography; marble busts to Mayan pottery and Japanese tea bowls. The museum provides a cultural experience in our own backyard that serves both the college and a far-flung community of artists and appreciators.
The museum is currently exhibits a collection by Richard Dupont, a New York City artist famous for plastic reproductions of his own body. The models are constructed from detailed computer scans. Middlebury’s exhibit features three prints from these scans, depicting Dupont’s bald head in wire-frame, with slightly distorted yet still baffling detail. They are accompanied by an outsized, transparent model of the same head filled with postcards, stamps, letters and envelopes. It is called “Correspondence Head,” and with the prints will preside over the upstairs gallery space until Dec. 11.
Not only is the museum convenient; it’s free. Anyone may visit Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, noon–5 p.m. It is closed on Mondays and for all college holidays, including the Dec. 12-Jan. 2 end-of-term break.
The museum is located in the Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts, the copper-roofed building off South Main Street. The building was completed in 1992 and also houses two theaters and a 370-seat recital hall. Since September the center has hosted six world-class acts in its Performing Arts Series. The programming will continue in the spring semester, including classical, world music, theater and dance.
As of this year, the Center for the Arts also houses the History of Art and Architecture Department. According to Chief Curator Emmie Donadio, this move has encouraged professors to use the Museum of Art as an educational resource.
“It’s so easy now to come from the classroom over to the museum to see a painting or an ancient coin. At any one time there are four or five professors using the gallery in their courses,” she said.
“The museum is an amazing educational tool,” Saunders added. He teaches courses on museum collection and curation using the college museum’s resources, and coordinates exhibits with other professors to complement coursework.
Though Middlebury College has many gallery spaces for exhibiting student work — including in McCullough student center, Davis Library, the Starr-Axinn center, and downtown at the Old Stone Mill — the Museum of Art stands alone as a source for fine art on campus.
But, students can hardly throw a Frisbee on campus without hitting a piece of public art, which is exactly what Saunders prefers.
“We want to put art where everyone can see it,” he said. “(President) Ron Liebowitz would say that the student experience should be 24/7, not just in class. I think the same thing about art. It should be wherever you look on campus. Students shouldn’t have to come to the museum to see art.”
Looking out from the museum windows, one can see the famous Robert Indiana “LOVE” sculpture with its cock-eyed “O,” a twisted metal abstraction by Clement Meadmore and a funky, two-way mirror and hedge installation on the art center patio.
The campus is also home to a sprawling aluminum fabrication outside Bicentennial Hall, murals in the Davis Library and Wright Theater, and many other pieces of public art. Donadio counts 20, and says there’s more on the way to replace a recently dismantled stick installation in front of the Center for Arts by internationally acclaimed artist Patrick Dougherty.
All of these pieces were funded by Middlebury’s “One Percent for the Arts” program, which directs money to purchase a piece of public art from building projects of over $1 million. Though this program has been indefinitely suspended because of the recession, Donadio says “it’s time to resuscitate it.”
While Donadio and Saunders work to vitalize the public art scene, the museum continues to acquire work through endowments, donations, and by purchasing pieces.
“It’s quite a balance,” Donadio said. “As the chief curator I have to be reactive to requests from professors, and decide what we should and can afford to have. I get to exercise my will a little bit, but mostly I weigh requests.”
The past 10 years have seen winter term classes focused on building the contemporary photography and video collection, led by students. The museum also purchases art with funding from its membership — $30 per year for and individual and free for students. This year it funded purchase of a painting by British realist Rackstraw Downes.
And, while students do take advantage of the museum and the Center for the Arts, the majority of visitors come from off campus. Over the past decade the museum has averaged approximately 12,000 visitors per year, Saunders said. This figure includes members of the public who visit individually or in groups, Middlebury College students and primary and secondary school groups from around the region. It also includes those who attend museum-sponsored events.
“The number of Middlebury College students who visit as part of class assignments or class discussions varies from year to year, but it is approximately 20 percent of the total,” Saunders added.
The rest are community members, visiting parents, and young children.
“That includes elementary programs,” Saunders said, referring to over 1,000 kindergarten through 12th grade students who tour the college’s permanent and loaned collections every year. The museum has specific sections geared toward elementary education, and trains college volunteers to act as grade-school interpreters through the Museum Assistants Program.
“We see students from Addison County, Rutland and Chittenden counties,” Saunders said. “As a museum in a rural setting we’re pretty unique.”

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