A 25th Birthday Celebration at the Hood

By Benjamin M. Riley


The Hood, built in 1985, was designed by acclaimed architect Charles Willard Moore.

The Hood Museum of Art claims to be the oldest continuously operating museum in all of North America. Like the claim that The Daily Dartmouth is America’s oldest college newspaper, this is a dubious one, hard to verify and even harder to derive meaning from. Yes, there is virtue in longevity but only if quality is found throughout the duration. And so despite the claims of the Hood, history truly begins there in 1985, when the Hood family donated the funds necessary to build the current structure, in between Wilson Hall and the Hopkins Center. Now twenty-five years later the Hood has become one of the nation’s premier college art museums, rivaling the offerings of bigger schools’ like Harvard and Yale. With a strong and varied collection as well as ever-expanding educational programming for both students and the community at large, The Hood performs its function as a beacon of artistic education beautifully.

 

This was the subject of a recent program put on by the Museum in celebration of its twenty-fifth anniversary in its current space. The program, which was a panel discussion featuring the three most recent directors of the museum moderated by the current interim director. Touching on wide-ranging subjects from the nature of the museum to the thrill of discovering undervalued work, the panel provided a glimpse into the nature of museum culture and thrilled the nearly full Alumni Hall with tales from the recent history of the Museum.

 

Former Hood Museum director Brian Kennedy, now the director of the Toledo Museum of Art, is one of those who returned to campus for the Hood’s 25th.First, a little background. The panel featured the three most recent directors of the Hood, namely Timothy Rub, Derek Cartwright, and the most recently departed Brian Kennedy. This holy trinity of sorts sat in the corner of the room, odd placement it seemed until I noticed the deployment of a large projection screen in the center used to deliver video messages from the first two directors of the Hood, who were unable to join either by choice or necessity. And yet after the quick video messages were over I was still left wondering why the actual panel was tucked in the corner and an unused screen dominated the center of the room. 

Regardless, the panel was moderated by the interim director of the Museum, Katherine Hart. After brief introductions of the men and their respective successes before and after their tenures in Hanover, Ms. Hart dove right into the questions. 

The stars of the show were immediately apparent. Both Mr. Rub and Mr. Kennedy displayed a thoughtfulness and depth of response that prove why the Museum is in the high position it is today. This is not to say that Mr. Cartwright did not display adequate intelligence, but his answers were hardly of the caliber of Mr. Rub’s and Mr. Kennedy’s. 

It is clear to me why Mr. Rub has attained such a high position following his departure from the Hood. When asked what his most important accomplishment was he first demurred, highlighting with some humor the hire of the current director of academic programming. The truth came shining however when he discussed how the endowment had grown in his nine-year tenure. He cited a starting number of three million dollars and a final number of twenty-one million, although it was and still is unclear to me whether twenty one million dollars was the endowment at the time of his departure or is the current number. Regardless, this comment showed exactly why Mr. Rub now holds perhaps one of the top three positions in American museums as director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

 

Former Hood director Timothy Rub is now the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.As much as those in the world of museums are loath to admit, ultimately, like almost everything else, being successful is a numbers game. As much as artistic integrity and public service are the cornerstones of a thriving museum, without money from donations, grants, et cetera, these things cannot exist. Quite simply, Mr. Rub gets it, and it was a delight to hear him later expound on the challenges facing museums in the next twenty-five years, as the question had it. Without skipping a beat Mr. Rub highlighted again the capital intensiveness of the museum business and the need to find new ways to connect with potential audiences so that museums can stay afloat. He noted that it was the job of directors to “demonstrate the pervasiveness of value of coming to a museum.” Mr. Rub, unlike many in the academic community understands that this noble goal is impossible without capital. Unfortunately academia cannot live in a bubble. It cannot survive in an ivory tower unless the ivory is being paid for. 

Mr. Kennedy also seemed to understand this concept when he spoke about the role of the Hood in the larger community beyond just students and faculty. Speaking on the idea of engaging more citizens of the Upper Valley, he mentioned that areas like Queechee and Woodstock are just sitting there, “waiting to be had.” 

And he is correct – with the involvement of the affluent and educated denizens of these towns, many of whom are second-home owners, the Hood could enter a new period of greater growth and prosperity. These people are an untapped market and one that clearly desires culture; just note how full most of the Hopkins Center’s events are. For all we know, these people are already attending the Hood, using its space and validating its existence. The next step, of course, is to court them as donors. Naturally, those most inclined to give money to the Museum will be those associated with the College: its alumni, parents of current students, college staff. But a concerted push to offer programming geared towards the cultured residents of the Upper Valley could bring in exponentially greater funds allowing even more programs for those who the museum really serves – students. It seems as if the Hood is already thinking this way, as evidenced by the twenty-fifth anniversary gala held later that night. Featuring distinguished guest and Montgomery Fellow, Frank Stella, the event appeared to me (from the outside) to be quite a success. More of these events are necessary if the Hood desires to increase its presence on campus and become a part of every student’s Dartmouth experience.

On this note, all three former directors spoke at length about the necessity to continue the trend of student involvement. The moderator’s question about the distinctive role that college museums play allowed each former director to explain his views on the conceptual nature of the college museum. This was Mr. Cartwright’s finest moment, as he hit the nail on the head in saying that college museums are some of the only cultural institutions that are able to uncompromisingly address specific publics. Furthermore he noted that college museums do not need to be overly concerned with the numbers of visitors that walk through their doors or the number of catalogues they publish. In describing college museums’ unique abilities to avoid these pitfalls, he unwittingly addressed the problems that many larger museums face today. In an attempt to secure more visitors and reach greater and greater audiences, America’s large museums have been forced to water down their content to the lowest common denominators. And so we see retreads of the same artists again and again – how often do major museums do shows on Impressionism and Post-Impressionism? How often are there highlighted Egyptian exhibitions? 

As Mr. Cartwright explained, however, college museums like the Hood are not burdened with these shackles. Its audience is very specific – students, teachers, and possibly the Upper Valley – and thus it can tailor programming without diluting it. Mr. Kennedy, whose Irish lilt and even more Irish wit captivated the audience at every turn, also spoke convincingly on the ability of college museums like the Hood to be constant sources of learning. Citing some five-thousand objects from the Hood’s collection of over sixty-thousand that are used in classrooms, he emphasized the importance of a continuous dialogue between students and teachers about art and just how informative this experience can be. This focus on the “possibility of objects,” which Kennedy noted teaches us “how to see and conduct meaning” is in the most recent director’s view, the greatest opportunity for the Hood in its coming future. 

In a time when the public is becoming less and less adept at understanding the ever-changing world around it, Kennedy’s emphasis on what he called “visual literacy” is refreshing and should make the Dartmouth community at large sad to lose him to the Toledo Museum of Art. His understanding of the fundamental value of museums and of the Hood Museum specifically will be sorely missed. 

One can only hope that the next director, whether it be interim director Katherine Hart or someone else, shares the insight and values that these three men possess. Under their stewardship the Hood has grown from a tiny museum at a tiny school in the woods of New Hampshire to a legitimately significant museum. Though it will never be the Met (or even the MFA for that matter), it shouldn’t strive to be. As long as it continues to provide a top-quality learning environment for Dartmouth students and the surrounding community, then the Hood is doing its job. And that is all we may ask.