The Pomona College Museum of Art: Reaching Across Disciplines
August 25, 2011
By her own admission, Janet Inskeep Benton ’79 didn’t have any interest in the Pomona College Museum of Art when she was a Pomona student. “I used to think of art museums as old, musty places, only filled with precious items,” she says.
But later in life, that viewpoint changed. Through travel, relationships and exposure to New York City’s vibrant art world, Benton, who lives near the city, developed a passion for the visual arts. And she discovered just how fun and stimulating art museums can be.
In that spirit, Benton has pledged more than $5 million to the Pomona museum, helping it to further several of its goals. As a “teaching museum” at a liberal arts college, the campus facility is an interdisciplinary resource for faculty and students. Exploring art adds valuable insight and context to a wide range of academic subjects, note museum officials, and it fosters creativity and critical thinking skills.
“We want the visual arts on campus to be a real, living part of students’ education,” says Kathleen Howe, director of the museum and professor of art history.
Toward that end, Benton’s gift is funding a new curatorial position whose focus is on strengthening the connections between the museum and the College’s academic curriculum. The funds also support student internships at the museum and have enabled it to expand its “Art After Hours” program, aimed at drawing more museum visitors from on and off campus.
Curator Makes Progress
Marie Shurkus was hired last October as the museum’s curator of academic programs, and her initial efforts have centered on a trailblazing, Los Angeles-based art project. The Getty Foundation’s arts initiative Pacific Standard Time brings together more than 60 cultural institutions in Southern California—including the Pomona College Museum of Art--to examine the evolution of the Los Angeles art scene from 1945 to 1980. Shurkus has been working intensely with Pomona faculty members so their classes can benefit from the interdisciplinary richness of this ambitious endeavor.
Many Pomona faculty members--including professors of literature, history, politics, architecture and economics--have expressed interest in taking their classes to Pacific Standard Time exhibitions, which touch on topics such as Los Angeles demographics, social change and pioneering efforts in architecture and design Shurkus has been making all travel and logistical arrangements so that professors are freed of those concerns and can just focus on the benefits of exhibition-related trips. A course management system will also bring together resource material for participating faculty.
Collaboration between the museum and the faculty, says Howe, “opens the door wider to make it easier for their courses to experience art, not just on campus but off.”
This summer, Shurkus is transitioning from her position and joining Media Studies faculty at Pomona. Terri Geis, who was a curatorial assistant and researcher at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, will succeed her.
“Terri will step in to continue the ambitious integration of PST programming with our curriculum begun by Marie, who has done a remarkable job of enlisting faculty from across the curriculum to participate in PST events through class visits, traditional and unconventional programming and student-run blogs,” says Howe. “Terri, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Essex, will bring her own formidable talents to developing curricular ties with the museum’s collections and future exhibitions.”
“Art After Hours” Provides a Lively Evening at the Museum
With the help of Janet Benton’s financial gift, the museum is able to operate “Art After Hours” from 5 to 11 p.m. on Thursday nights during the academic year. The weekly event brings students together for social and art events that feature lectures, panels, music, poetry and film screenings in conjunction with museum exhibitions. Howe says the program enables students to feel more ownership of the museum space: Student and campus groups help select the entertainment, such as DJs or spoken-word performers.
“Art After Hours” has proven to be a big hit. More than 2,400 students attended the Thursday night events during last year’s fall semester--when the 5–11 p.m. time was introduced--and that number increased by another 300 in the spring semester.
“It’s been successful beyond our wildest dreams,” says Howe, “and it really is fun. Students can talk, snack and dance while enjoying the museum.”
Benton, who previously endowed a scholarship fund at Pomona, talked often with Howe about what her gift would fund, and says the two of them share the same ideas about a museum’s purpose.
“An art museum should be a place that you can personally connect with, that engages people,” says the Harvard Business School graduate. “You can go there to engage in activities you enjoy and appreciate. That’s what I want for Pomona.”
Howe and Shurkus express deep gratitude to the Pomona alumna for her generosity. Benton’s gift, says Shurkus, is “incredibly significant,” helping the museum improve learning opportunities for all Pomona students.
Inside the Museum: Student Internships
As a student intern at the Pomona College Museum of Art this year, Brittnay Ahn’s responsibilities included photographing thousands of works of art in the museum collection and cataloging them for the online database. That might seem like mundane work to some, says Ahn ’13, but for an art history major like herself, it was exhilarating to have such up-close access to the museum’s collection, which houses more than 9,000 individual works, including paintings, drawings, prints and other objects.
“You get to see all of the pieces, which is fantastic,” says the Pomona junior.
Ahn says she is considering a career as an art museum curator, and the internship--which she did in the fall and spring semesters--gave her a better feel for what the profession would be like.
Paulette Barros ’11 also worked as a part-time intern throughout the 2010–11 school year. Much of her responsibilities focused on the “Stealing Fire” exhibition, held at the museum to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the painting of the Prometheus mural in Pomona’s Frary Dining Hall. She and a fellow intern curated the show, which included writing wall text and mining museum archives to learn more about the history of Prometheus.
“I have done internships at other museums, and this was way more hands-on,” says Barros, who graduated in the spring. “I really felt challenged. It was incredibly helpful, and I really enjoyed myself.”
Ian Byers-Gamber ’14 is doing a full-time internship this summer. (All of the museum’s internships are paid.) He is helping with the museum’s curricular support for courses related to the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time initiative. Byers-Gamber is also designing posters and organizing resources for campus events that will tie into the Los Angeles exhibitions.
“So far, the internship has been a great experience,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot about art in general--and about the contemporary Los Angeles art scene.”