Widely considered one of the finest college art museums in the country, the Williams College Museum of Art is a department of Williams College.
Williams is a four-year, co-educational liberal arts college located in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts that attracts students from every state in the nation and from more than 40 foreign countries. The college is particularly well regarded for the caliber of its art history programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
The mission of the Williams College Museum of Art is “to advance learning through lively and innovative approaches to art for the students of Williams College and communities beyond the campus.” The museum was accredited by the American Association of Museums in 1993 and re-accredited in 2004.
WCMA houses nearly 13,000 works that span the history of art. The museum encourages multidisciplinary teaching through encounters with art objects that traverse time periods and cultures. An active, collecting museum, its strengths are in modern and contemporary art, photography, prints, and Indian painting. The museum is especially known for its stellar collection of American art from the late 18th century to the present. With the largest collection in the world of works by the brothers Charles and Maurice Prendergast, the museum is a primary center for study of these American artists in a transatlantic context of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
WCMA’s signature exhibition style is to place art within a broad cultural and historical context. Special exhibitions curated by museum staff, faculty, students, and guest curators focus on new scholarship and encourage multiple perspectives. The museum’s catalogues are consistent with this mode of presentation, in that they typically include writings from a range of scholars, and it is characteristic to find art historians and artists writing alongside historians and political scientists. WCMA actively publishes catalogues to accompany our self-organized loan exhibitions, many of which travel nationally and internationally. Some of these exhibitions include: Introjection: Tony Oursler, mid-career survey, 1976–1999 (1999); Carrie Mae Weems: The Hampton Project (2000); Prelude to a Nightmare: Art, Politics, and Hitler’s Early Years in Vienna, 1906–1913 (2002); Kara Walker: Narratives of a Negress (2003); Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, 1890–1910 (2005); Jackson Pollock at Williams College: A Tribute to Kirk Varnedoe ’67 (2006); Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain (2006); Drawing on Hopper: Gregory Crewdson/Edward Hopper (2006); Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy (2007); Liu Zheng: The Chinese (2008), and Prendergast in Italy (2009). WCMA has received recognition from the International Association of Art Critics for the following four exhibitions: Introjection: Tony Oursler, mid-career survey, 1976–1999; Prelude to a Nightmare: Art, Politics, and Hitler’s Early Years in Vienna, 1906–1913; Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, 1890–1910; Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy, and Prendergast in Italy.
WCMA emphasizes the importance of bringing many voices to the interpretation of its permanent collection. The museum has published seven collection catalogues since 1979, including Williams College Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collection (1979), Maurice Brazil Prendergast–Charles Prendergast, A Catalogue Raisonné (1990), The Art of Charles Prendergast from the Collections of the Williams College Museum of Art and Mrs. Charles Prendergast (1993), Art of India (1994), The Art of Leisure: Maurice Prendergast in the Williams College Museum of Art (1999), American Dreams: American Art in the Williams College Museum of Art, and Encounter: The Williams College Museum of Art (2006).
Karl Weston, the museum’s founder and first director, established WCMA in 1926 to provide Williams students with the opportunity for firsthand observation of fine works of art, a privilege he maintained was essential to the study of art. For 22 years Weston taught art history and solicited gifts from alumni for the museum’s collection. In 1948 Weston was followed in both roles by his former student S. Lane Faison, Jr., whose 28-year tenure saw a significant expansion of the art department and the collection.
Faced with inadequate exhibition, office, and storage space in 1981, Director Franklin W. Robinson formed a Visiting Committee of distinguished art professionals, mostly Williams alumni, to advise on the expansion of the building and programming. Charles Moore was hired as architect, and in 1981 a six-year building phase began under newly appointed Director Thomas Krens. The staff was increased, exhibition space doubled, facilities raised to professional standards, a vigorous schedule of changing exhibitions launched, and an education program for school children inaugurated. In addition, scholars were hired to start work on a catalogue raisonné of the works of Charles and Maurice Prendergast, which marked the beginning of a long-standing relationship with the Prendergast Foundation.
Linda Shearer became director in 1989, and the Prendergast catalogue raisonné was completed. Under her direction, the museum increased its interdisciplinary and curricular use of its holdings, and renewed its emphasis on the museum’s permanent collection. The year 1989 also marked the beginning of WCMA’s relationship with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. WCMA’s Mellon Academic Program is now an integral part of the museum’s mission. In 2001, on the occasion of its 75th anniversary, the museum commissioned Eyes (Nine Elements), 2001 a permanent outdoor sculpture by renowned artist Louise Bourgeois. For the museum, the work symbolizes an ongoing dedication to contemporary art while providing students and visitors with a unique outdoor meeting place.
Lisa Corrin was appointed director in 2005 and continued to champion WCMA’s mission as a teaching museum, connecting the museum’s exhibitions to the campus curriculum and emphasizing the importance of the museum’s collection. In 2009, she oversaw the expansion of the Mellon Program at the museum, with an endowment from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support a new position called The Mellon Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Arts. The Fulkerson Fund for Leadership in the Arts was established in 2010, the same year that public art on campus was expanded. Williams is now the permanent home of a commissioned sculpture by contemporary artist Jenny Holzer, in honor of Williams alumnus, professor, and devoted member of the community J. Hodge Markgraf, Class of 1952, and a kinetic sculpture by George Rickey, given by the Class of 1961. The year 2011 saw the reinstallation of ten of the museum’s galleries with Reflections on a Museum, an ambitious project that stresses the importance of the museum’s collection as the heart of this teaching museum.
Today the museum is under the leadership of Christina Olsen, who became the director in May 2012.