Hofstra University Museum: Transformation and Renewal
Director, Hofstra University Museum
A Brief History of the Museum
During the third decade of its history, in 1963, Hofstra University opened the Emily Lowe Gallery, located behind Emily Lowe Hall. As a fledgling collection began to take shape, significant African, Melanesian, and Pre-Columbian collections were gifted to the “museum” through the generosity of trustees, alumni, and Long Island residents. During the next decades, the collection grew to more than 4,300 objects and works of art with a major focus on American prints from the early 1900s to the present. Added to the collection through the years were works by significant American artists such as Romare Bearden, Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Alfred Maurer, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Jane Peterson, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Stella, and Andy Warhol. Into the eclectic mix that comprises the collection, a number of European works were also donated, including an early Paul Gauguin painting, Jean Cocteau ceramics, and a Henry Moore sculpture, along with prints by Joan Miró and René Magritte.
As the museum was taking shape, exhibitions were offered on a regular basis to the campus community, with early shows such as The America of Currier & Ives (1964), Art of Japan: Women of the “Floating World” (1979), and Mother and Child: The Art of Henry Moore (1987) providing opportunities for educational and cultural engagement. The Emily Lowe Gallery was the mainstay of the museum’s operations until the early 1990s when David Alderman Gallery and Rochelle and Irwin A. Lowenfeld Conference and Exhibition Hall on the ninth and 10th floors, respectively, of the Joan and Donald E. Axinn Library were inaugurated, and the name “Hofstra Museum” was designated as the umbrella under which these three locations would be identified.
The museum has proudly served the campus community in its changing structure and capacity throughout the tenures of various directors and professional staff, and since 1982, when the museum was honored with its first accreditation by the American Association of Museums (AAM), it has continued to be recognized for a high standard of professionalism within the museum industry. During its many years, the museum’s main thrust of educational outreach to the Hofstra community has been achieved through the mounting of exhibitions, publications of companion catalogs and brochures, and exhibits responsive to the Hofstra Cultural Center’s conference and symposium offerings.
A Time of Transition
As the museum world was turning its attentions toward building community engagement through partnerships and collaborations with the various constituencies served by the museums, the Hofstra Museum also came to a turning point. In 2006 a major transformation began. This change was to encompass every aspect of the museum’s operations and outreach, including a name change to the “Hofstra University Museum” – to better identify the museum’s integral aesthetic and educational role within the campus community. During the summer of 2006, meetings were held with numerous administrators, deans, and faculty to solicit volunteers for a new Museum Advisory Committee of 16 members, including students, that would help redefine the museum’s mission and guide the development of a five-year strategic plan.
As crafted through the thoughtful contributions of the Advisory Committee members, the Hofstra University Museum’s new mission “is dedicated to furthering the understanding and enjoyment of the visual arts. It helps people to make deep and long-lasting connections to works of art as well as to the varied cultures from which they originate. Through its collections and exhibitions, its sculpture gardens and its interpretive programs, the museum is committed to being a vital partner in the educational, pedagogical, and cultural life of Hofstra University students, faculty and staff, as well as the residents of the greater New York metropolitan region. It strives to achieve this mission by adherence to the highest professional standards in the collection, preservation, exhibition and interpretation of works of art.”
Along with the new mission and strategic plan, defining 14 key goals and numerous action-items related to all aspects of the museum’s endeavors, it was evident that the museum needed to develop a program of evaluation and assessment. A partnership and collaboration between the museum, the Master of Arts Program in Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology, and the vice president for institutional and market research led to the development of a three-year plan for assessing a number of key elements, including overall public awareness of the museum and its locations, its exhibitions and activities, and its extensive collection.
Through the development of several assessment and evaluation tools created in tandem with I/O graduate assistants, including a campus-wide online awareness survey, faculty focus groups, visitor surveys, and a Long Island arts educator survey, the museum gained valuable information about outreach to its primary audiences. First and foremost, it became apparent that the museum was no longer seen as the vital Hofstra University contributor it had once been. More than 90 percent of student respondents were unaware of where the museum galleries were located, and very few students had ever attended the exhibitions offered on campus. During faculty focus group sessions, it became evident that there were no strong relationships with any of the departments within the University, and there were no faculty-oriented resources for learning about what works and objects were in the collection for their use. Those who were aware of the museum found its Emily Lowe Gallery in need of renovation, growth, and enhancements to provide better viewing and study opportunities for works in the collection and on exhibition. All participants were eager to build relationships with the museum and were seeking a means to learn, in advance of the development of a semester’s syllabus, what exhibitions and programs the museum would be offering so that they could effectively integrate these opportunities into course planning.
Armed with these valuable insights, the museum used the subsequent year to institute tremendous programmatic changes and new communications practices. These changes were intended to alter perceptions of the museum and its relevance as an integral component of the life of the University. The Emily Lowe Gallery and the David Alderman Gallery saw major renovations, with new storage areas for the collection, entryways, banners and signage, ceilings, lighting, ADA-compliant display cases, museum shop and welcome desk, restroom facilities, and outdoor landscaping and sitting areas. A CD-Rom was created with categorized listings of all the works in the permanent collection, to be updated annually and available to all University faculty. The museum’s Web site was enhanced to include an “Educator Resource” section with a downloadable form for faculty use in scheduling class time in the galleries, along with the ability to indicate up to five individual permanent collection works to be brought out for personalized class discussion at the museum’s Emily Lowe Gallery. An annual exhibition schedule brochure distributed to the faculty in August (a suggestion from the focus groups) gives timely information about upcoming exhibitions during an academic calendar, allowing faculty members to incorporate relevant exhibits into course syllabi. Invitations and brochures for all exhibitions are now created and sent to the chair of each department for distribution to all faculty. In addition, administrators receive individual mailings, and students receive information through placements of materials throughout the residence halls, libraries and Mack Student Center, and displays on campus LCD screens. Printed gallery guides are available with each changing exhibition at the museum’s Emily Lowe Gallery to provide an introduction and framework for viewing and interpreting the context and meaning of works of art. Large print versions of wall text and object labels for exhibits at Emily Lowe Gallery are available for individuals who are visually impaired.
New Exhibition Focus
Among many questions posed in the awareness survey was one pertaining to the types of exhibitions that people would wish to see. A majority of respondents (65 percent) selected photography as the most popular choice for exhibit content. While a multifaceted exhibition schedule will continue, exhibition concepts are shifting to allow a focus on vital aspects of the permanent collection. Original exhibitions now feature contemporary artists from the New York City area, artists of historical or cultural significance, and subjects of topical importance and relevance, and with educational links to various disciplines. Recent examples over the past two academic years are Bearden, Lawrence, Parks: Artists of Influence, which featured collection works by these three African American artists who came of age during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s and were quite influential during the Civil Rights movement; American Perspectives: 1907-1992, featuring works from the permanent collection highlighting the evolving American art scene during each decade of the 20th century; and On Location: Women Photographers From the Hofstra University Museum Collection, focusing on pioneering women photographers Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Marilyn Bridges, Sally Gall, Erica Lennard, and Mary Ellen Mark. Working with the University faculty, the museum’s own professional staff, as well as other professional guest curators, the Hofstra University Museum’s exhibition schedule for the next few years includes a look at the history of dance in America (in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the dance program at Hofstra), a focus on contemporary artist/graphic designer Burton Morris, a show featuring experimental contemporary photographer Mikael Levin, and an exhibition on contemporary chair design. The museum continues its tradition of flexibility and responsiveness to the academic conferences hosted by the Hofstra Cultural Center, but with a new emphasis on artistic responses. Exhibitions such as the recent photographic essay Looking and Thinking Past Auschwitz and the upcoming photographic biographical exhibit The Greatest of All Time: Muhammad Ali (September 23- December 2, 2008) offer visual responses to Hofstra Cultural Center conference themes.