Hofstra Horizons Research

Hofstra University Museum: Transformation and Renewal

Beth E. Levinthal
Director, Hofstra University Museum

Hofstra University Museum:Transformation and Renewal

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.

As an active participant in the life of the campus, the museum will feature The Presidents, 1933-2001: A History of Presidential Conferences at Hofstra University at the David Filderman Gallery and Rochelle and Irwin A. Lowenfeld Conference and Exhibition Hall from September through December 2008, as a component of Educate ’08 events associated with the October 15 presidential debate to be held on campus.

Student-Centered University Collaborations and Partnerships

One of the museum’s major goals is to become a learning laboratory and incubator for ideas that will enhance the experience for all Hofstra students, giving them first-hand opportunities for dialogue and discourse, research, scholarship, knowledge of the curatorial process, and the ability to extend concepts learned in their classes. To achieve this goal, the building of exciting and dynamic new collaborations and partnerships throughout the University is essential. In 2006 one of the museum’s first partnerships began with Hofstra’s History Department and the new Center for Civic Engagement. The museum collaborated in offering the traveling exhibition Gandhi, King, Ikeda: A Legacy of Peace Building from Morehouse College. Hofstra undergraduate and graduate students in history and sociology were trained by Hofstra University Museum staff to serve as exhibition docents (tour guides) for high school students throughout Long Island.

The past year has also seen an increase in the number of faculty members now experiencing the benefits of a class visit to the Hofstra University Museum’s galleries. The creation of a museum education coordinator position has provided a professional liaison who, along with the museum’s director, actively assists Hofstra colleagues as they plan their visits and class experiences.

Other new partnerships include one with Hofstra’s School of Education and Allied Human Services, which has made the commitment to bring to the museum, each semester, all student teachers of elementary and special education. Participating in one or two sessions, held at the museum’s Emily Lowe Gallery and led by the museum’s educators, the students learn how to use museums as a resource in and out of their classrooms. All students experience in-gallery activities that stimulate discussion about works of art, various learning modalities, and methods for incorporating object-based learning into core curriculum areas. Another collaboration has been generated with Hofstra’s Drama and Dance Department. At the opening reception for African American Highlights From the Reader’s Digest Association Collection, three students performed original interpretive dances choreographed by their professor, Dyane Harvey-Salaam, marrying jazz, African rhythms, and blues to specific works of art by Willie Cole, Robert Colescott, and Lorna Simpson. In the February 14, 2008, issue of The Chronicle, one student’s response to this event was noted, “I expected to gain knowledge about African art; I didn’t expect an amazing unique dance performance also.”

As the central audience for the museum, Hofstra students in many disciplines, including art history, communications, English, fine arts, journalism, history of radio, philosophy, psychology, and sociology, are learning how works of art have historical, societal, and other vital connective links to their studies and their lives.

Public Programs

The museum has set a course for growth of engagement and outreach to the broader community. Turning to the results of the awareness survey as one guide for planning, it was clear that 25 percent of the University’s staff and faculty wanted the museum to offer family oriented programming. Family Fun Sundays, introduced in fall 2007, have attracted a growing audience of children and their families who enjoy creating personal artistic responses after guided explorations of works on view in the galleries. Future programming for these audiences will include storytelling events and sculpture tours, as well as puppet shows and other family-oriented performances.

Lifelong learners are another important constituency for the museum, as alumni and other members of the regional community seek quality experiences in the visual arts. Through the introduction of ongoing public program initiatives such as First Wednesdays, Faculty and Educator Open Houses, and illustrated presentations, the museum now engages students, faculty, and members of the surrounding community in an informal manner. In fall 2007 the Art Talk series devoted to contemporary issues in the arts and society premiered. Guest presenters included art critic/artist/author Peter Plagens; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Les Payne; and renowned contemporary artist Willie Cole. Symposia, lectures, musical interludes, bus excursions, and many other opportunities are now offered, as the museum continues to expand its engagement with the Hofstra community, as well as other audiences.

The museum has also initiated new programs geared toward Long Island school districts. Kindergarten through 12th grade programs bring educators and their classes from Nassau and Suffolk Counties to the museum for grade-appropriate explorations and activities. Pre-visit and post-visit materials created for each exhibition provide teachers with valuable resources that extend their students’ experiences beyond the walls of the Hofstra University Museum.

Transformation Continues

As the Hofstra University Museum continues to expand its sphere of influence and value to the University and the New York metropolitan community, it has embarked on several grant-funded projects with the New York State Council for the Arts, Bethpage Federal Credit Union, JPMorgan Chase, and the Judith Rothschild Foundation. These projects will foster new relationships with local school districts while providing Hofstra students with opportunities to participate in leadership roles; provide family-centered learning experiences through explorations of the outdoor sculptures on campus; bring to life a major retrospective exhibition and symposium focused on past Hofstra faculty member and Abstract Expressionist Perle Fine; and continue the general growth of the Hofstra University Museum’s presence and influence within the Long Island region.

The museum enjoys a growing stature and leadership role as it joins in New York State Department of Education meetings centered on arts education, actively participates in professional organizations and conferences, and strengthens partnerships with New York City and Long Island-based museums, galleries, artists, and professionals in the arts.

The Hofstra University Museum, with its newly renovated facilities, its growing responsiveness to the needs of its core community of students and faculty, and its evolution and development of new partnerships, looks forward to continued transformation and renewal as one of the many dynamic components of life within the Hofstra community and beyond.

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