Middlebury art museum celebrates a half century of acquisitions

MIDDLEBURY — Most of us probably don’t quite realize what we have in the Middlebury College Museum of Art. We say, “sure, it’s the college, of course they have an incredible museum of art” — perhaps in a similar way a New Yorker passes the MOMA with a shrug.
But it’s worth a second thought, for sure.
To help us all realize the extent of the college’s commitment to it’s permanent art collection — and to celebrate a milestone — the museum recently opened an exhibit to highlight the past 50 years of acquisitions. “50/50: Collecting for the Middlebury College Museum of Art” opened on Jan. 25 and will remain on view in the upstairs gallery of the museum through Aug. 11. This exhibit features 50 works — one from each year back to 1968 — which chronicle the growth and evolution of the collection.
“In 1968 Middlebury College began the formal purchase of works of art as a way to augment the teaching of the visual arts,” reads the introductory statement to the exhibit. “This process was made possible by the enormous generosity of the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation, which provided funds for the Christian A. Johnson Memorial building and its Christian A. Johnson Memorial Gallery — the first dedicated art exhibition space at Middlebury College — as well as resources to begin to assemble a permanent art collection.”
“That first year there were 125 works of art in the Johnson building,” said Richard Saunders, who’s been the director of the Museum of Art for the past 34 years.
Thanks to Saunders, the Collections Committee and a host of others, the art collection at Middlebury has grown to nearly 6,000 objects over the past 50 years. Works range from the antique to contemporary and include works in a great variety of media from different cultures around the world.
“The question is always: ‘What do we want to acquire and why?’” Saunders, who received his Ph.D. in Art History from Yale in 1978, explained. “When someone walks through the door, you want them to see something they can relate to. We want the art we acquire to compliment what we already have and connect to our students.”
Sometimes, that’s easier said than done.
“If you go into the marketplace, you have to have the money,” said Saunders, adding that there are eleven endowments at the college specifically dedicated to art purchases, plus contributions by members of the Friends of the Art Museum (FOAM). “We’re constantly seeking what’s meaningful for the college and what we can afford.”
As this is Middlebury College, we expect the connections and pockets to run deep — and they most certainly do. But there are times when there’s a higher bidder.
“There are always disappointments, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?”  Saunders asked, like the marathon-runner that he is (or, well, used to be). “To properly pursue something you have to know what you’re doing. Even if you don’t get a certain work of art, usually it’s not a dead end — it’ll lead to something else.
“Sometimes it takes a long time to really get what you want to get,” Saunders continued. “It’s like fishing, you have to cast your line in over and over before you catch the fish… It’s amazing what you can buy if you’re diligent.”
Then there are the pieces that come to the college as gifts and bequests from alumni and friends.
“There’s a synergy that comes over time from people being exposed to art,” said Saunders, who has countless stories of acquiring art by serendipitous connections to Middlebury.
But the museum is careful not to accept pieces just for the sake of acquisition.
The Collections Committee, made up of five members, approves every acquisition, Saunders explained. “We don’t want storerooms full of things we don’t want,” he said. “Sometimes we stay no, like for example if it’s a large collection of the same type of work.”
Saunders describes the collection as “eclectic.” And that’s just they way they want it to be. Diversity is important.
“For a long time we did a bad job with gender balance,” said Saunders, referring to the lack of female artists. “We’re doing the best job we can to change that.”
The same philosophy extends to artists in other minority populations.
Saunders thinks of himself more as a catalyst for the Museum of Art. “Many people in my position would have moved on to bigger institutions, but I like to do what I do at this level… It’s truly exciting because you feel like you’re building something.”
And build something he has. Go check it out — pretend like you’re going to the Met if you have to — you won’t be disappointed.
WHEN GENTLY TOUCHED, this sound sculpture by American artist Harry Bertoia, produces an array of musical sounds. The sixty-four beryllium copper and brass rods that comprise the grid of the Middlebury work are typical of Bertoia’s sound sculptures, which come in a range of sizes and shapes. Purchase with funds provided by the Friends of Art Acquisition Fund, the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Fund, the Walter Cerf Art Fund, and gift (by exchange) of Carmen Walker ’11, Wilbur F. Weeks ’47, Prudence Montgomery, and Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence McCoy

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