On the Record with Andria Derstine, AMAM Director

Andria Derstine, the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s John G. W. Coles director, is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the museum’s completion with a variety of special exhibitions and programs.

Photo courtesy of AMAM

Andria Derstine, the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s John G. W. Coles director, is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the museum’s completion with a variety of special exhibitions and programs.

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

Andria Derstine is the John G. W. Cowles Director of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, which celebrates its centennial season this year. Derstine, a graduate of Harvard University and the New York University Institute of Fine Arts, is leading the museum into its next 100 years, beginning with centennial programming that highlights the contributions that individuals have made to the museum since its founding. Prior to her directorship, Derstine was an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow and Assistant Curator in the Department of European Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts. She is also certified by the Center for Curatorial Leadership in partnership with Columbia University.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is it like to be the director of the Allen Memorial Art Museum during its centennial season?

Well, it’s wonderful. I am so happy to be here at this really important moment in time for the museum and to work with the staff and [other colleagues] on campus to really celebrate this important occasion for the museum. Turning 100 is not something that an institution does more than once, and of course it’s a very long span of time. So it’s a really exciting moment to be here for the centennial.

How is the centennial season going so far?

All of our exhibits this academic year are focused on the history of the museum and important aspects of donors to the collection. It’s wonderful to have these very important works on view in very focused exhibitions. Now that we’re in the centennial year, we’re very excited to have … an exhibition that will be on view all year that highlights the contributions of Ellen Johnson, OC ‘33, who was a professor in the Art department and a very important person for Oberlin’s collections. Additionally, there is an exhibition about the Bissets, a husband and wife who were co-founders of the Maidenform company — the company that developed the Maidenform bra. They made their money in that area, then used it to purchase art. They donated 24 wonderful, very important works to the Allen during the 1950s and ’60s. And then we have a number of exhibitions that will be on view throughout both the fall and the spring that look at our Asian art collections and important donors to those collections. And we’re also very excited that this fall we have an exhibition about prints made by women during the museum’s first 100 years. In that space in the spring semester, we are excited about a loan exhibition that we’re doing jointly organized with Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, and we will have Rembrandt etchings on view for the spring semester. So it’s a really exciting year for us.

What sort of challenges do you think that museums all over the world might be facing 100 years from now? What challenges will the AMAM face in particular?

One challenge that any museum encounters is space. We collect original works of art, and original works of art take up space. So space is a concern of ours. We’re thinking very much about how we can maximize our space — both the space in our galleries, where we can show the works of art, as well as storage space, so that we can continue to acquire very high quality original works of art. I think that’s something that all museums will be struggling with in the future.

Certainly, museums all over the world struggle with funding issues. You always want to do special projects and special exhibitions and have special programs, and obviously it costs money to do that. We’ve been really fortunate at the AMAM to have a very dedicated donor base. We’re fortunate to benefit from many alumni who have passed through these doors over many decades and who have been very generous to the Allen. But I do think of things such as the recent talk, especially in the spring, around cutting federal funding for the arts — National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. There are a lot of grant-making organizations that have been very generous. I think that the environment right now for federal funding for the arts is perhaps not as great as it once was. That is something that all museums — especially those in the United States — will need to take account of in the coming years.

What are you most excited for in the next 100 years of the AMAM?

What I’m most excited for is really how much more I think we can be doing for our communities. And I say that in the plural because … we are doing a lot, I think, for the Oberlin College and Conservatory community, the faculty, the students, getting them into the museum, getting the artworks in our care built in to professors’ syllabi [and] built into classes. We also do so much with the local community. Between Toledo, OH, and Cleveland, OH, which are each about 45 minutes to an hour and a half [away by car] on either side of us to the east and the west, we are the biggest museum, … and so we serve a lot of the surrounding counties as their local art museum, and we are really making a push to get more of our community members into the museum. When I think about 100 years from now, I’d like to think about the museum firing on all cylinders and having the museum deeply integrated into the College curriculum, but also serving a very broad community and people of all ages. And we certainly do this now — we have preschool students who come in and senior citizens who come in — but I’d like to see the Allen 100 years from now as deeply engaged or more with the communities that surround us.

If you could talk to any of the people who were instrumental in the early founding of the AMAM or the development of its collections, what would you have to say to them and what do you think that they would think of the museum as it is today?

Of course, I’d like to think that they would walk through the doors of the AMAM and just be overawed at how wonderful it is and how much we have on view. That is one thing that I do think about very often — the fact that the collection has … grown to more than 15,000 works of art in our care … [spanning] 6,000 years of art and many of the world’s cultures. We have Aboriginal art, we have African, Asian, Native American, American, European, modern and contemporary, pre-Columbian, Islamic art — I truly think that we are a mini-Metropolitan Museum of Art. I would like to think that people who may have been here at the very beginning … would come through these doors and be really amazed at the generosity of Oberlin’s alumni, many of whom were donors to the museum. That’s how we have this wonderful collection.

If I could speak to some of them, … I would certainly say, “Thank you,” because the museum truly has been built up by individuals. It’s individuals such as … Clarence Ward, who was the first Director of the museum. He was also … the first Chair of the nascent Art department. He also built the addition that was put on in the ’30s that now houses some of the Art department. But he really set the stage, from 1917 into the late 1940s, [for] getting the museum integrated into the curriculum and used in teaching. He really set us on our path. Charles Parkhurst is another person that I would love to meet. He was the second director of the museum. He had been a “monuments man”; he was one of the people tasked at the end of World War II with tracking down looted art in Europe. He was a co-founder of the [Intermuseum Conservation Association] that was housed in the Allen [for many years]. It moved into Cleveland [in 2003]. It was wonderful for the museum to benefit from having a conservation studio here on site for many, many decades. Of course I would love to have met Ellen Johnson, OC ‘33, … who was great, great friends with people like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns and Klaus Oldenberg and Robert Raushenberg, and who purchased works for herself … and encouraged the museum to purchase works early in artists’ careers.

What would you want to say to students or community members who haven’t had a chance to visit the museum yet?

The first thing I would want to say is that the museum, since it opened on June 12, 1917, has always been free and open to all. We don’t charge any admission fee, either for the museum in general or for special exhibitions. And some colleges let in the students of that particular college for free, but other people have to pay, and I think sometimes people do wonder, “Well, it’s a college museum. Is it open to the community?” Absolutely. You can come in and spend 10 or 15 minutes and not feel like you’ve paid [an entrance fee] and that you need to get your money’s worth and stay for two or three hours, when that might not be the time that you have.

Talk about the three inscriptions on the front of the building: “The fine arts a heritage from the past,” “The fine arts a gift to the future,” and the big one over the doors, “The cause of art is the cause of the people.” What is the history of these inscriptions, and how do you interpret them in the work that you do here?

They were put there in the spring of 1917. … Just two months before the museum opened, they were finally decided upon and then carved into the stone of the building. … The central one, “The cause of art is the cause of the people,” comes from a speech [by] William Morris, who was an artist in England in the late 19th century [and] a proponent of the arts and crafts movement. [Morris’s speech] was really about socialism, and that quote is a line from his speech. I think it’s just perfect for the Allen, because indeed we are free and open to the public. Art impacts people’s lives positively, and that’s what we want this museum to be doing. And I do often think about the fact that the museum was opened in June 1917 and that was just a few short months after the U.S. entered World War I … April of 1917, was just at the time that those quotations [and] inscriptions were being decided upon. I think it is something that — maybe not overtly, but in some way — speaks to the trauma that was going on in the world at that time and the fact that art can really be something that is healing and that is a positive force for people around the world. For the two [inscriptions] that are on the sides, they aren’t quotes from William Morris, but I think they speak to the fact that a museum such as the Allen [is] looking to the past by virtue of what we collect, though we collect modern and contemporary art as well, but we’re also looking to the future. We’re here for the education of Oberlin students and of the general public, and that is what is creating the future. So I really do think those inscriptions are perfect for us.