The building that holds Bowdoin College’s art museum certainly looks its part. Renowned 19th-century architect Charles McKim designed the Renaissance-revival facade. Stone lions flank the front steps. Statues of Sophocles and Demosthenes gaze serenely upon the quad. Inside, set in the rotunda floor, brass letters spell out a dictum: “To Be Used Solely For Art Purposes.”
Art Purposes is the wry title of a new book, by curator Joachim Homann, that takes some shine off that built-in sentiment, which, he writes, “established a threshold between the everyday world outside the Museum’s walls, and the uplifting experience that awaited visitors inside the galleries.”
“It has irked me for the nine years I’ve been here,” Homann says. “It’s a pretty antiquated idea.” The Walker Art Building turned 125 years old this year, and he figured that was good occasion to reflect on how the museum has outgrown old art-world assumptions.
At first glance, the book is an attractive, abridged survey of the museum’s millennia-spanning collection — ancient Assyria reliefs, a Ming dynasty ink-on-silk white heron, medicine-men figurines from the Tlingit of southern Alaska, Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Thomas Jefferson, an abstract Maine landscape by Alex Katz, an ear of corn dangling inside a small cage. It makes a lovely coffee-table piece. It also delivers smart, accessible essays by experts from around the globe.
The senior curator at Monticello uses Stuart’s painting of Jefferson to explore the political rationale behind portraiture in the early republic. An art historian in Hong Kong parses why Qing dynasty jade works were altered over time. A professor of English at the University of Franche-Comté, in France, considers how photography’s advent likely influenced Winslow Homer’s dusky painting of a Chicago World’s Fair fountain. The many essays offer fresh takes on what the collection can say about other concerns: history, science, cultural attitudes.
Homann recruited a diverse cast of contributors because he didn’t want predictable perspectives or an institutional voice. “I’m trying to do my part in shifting the focus from admiring these objects as masterpieces, or whatever, that are fixed forever and hang on a wall,” he says. “These artworks provide tools and vocabularies and ideas that are open to everyone for reflection.”
Homann was particularly excited to highlight an expanded stash of modern and contemporary art. The museum finished a major renovation in 2007 and became a more desirable destination for donations — 10,000 of its 25,000 objects arrived since. “There are still a lot of people who think they know the museum because they knew it in the ’90s or ’80s or earlier,” Homann says. “This is kind of a reminder of how things are changing.”
Homann’s Art Purposes: Object Lessons for the Liberal Arts ($60, Prestel Publishing) is available at penguinrandomhouse.com and the Bowdoin College Museum of Art shop. Also at the museum: exhibits built around the book, showing a wide range of the collection, from Assyrian reliefs to a surreal sunset by René Magritte to William Wegman’s polaroids of a Weimaraner atop stacked blocks.
9400 College Station, Brunswick. 207-725-3275.
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