The Real Thing

Sharon Patton

Story and photographs by G. M. Donley '83

A lot of colleges want just a 'teaching' collection," says Sharon F. Patton only weeks after her arrival at Oberlin as the new director of Allen Memorial Art Museum. "We don't want just a teaching collection. We want quality. Here, faculty can show students the actual thing, not only slides of great works of art that are displayed somewhere else. What students see here is great art. There is no substitute for the real thing."

A principal aim of any visual arts museum is getting visitors face-to-face with the "real thing." The role of a college museum is substantially educational, and encouraging a meaningful connection between viewer and artwork becomes even more important. "Our job is to ensure that the students who come here are exposed to the best there is," Patton says.

"Through the experience they learn who they are and their history and experience. For me, personally, it's about broadening one's perspective, about thinking globally. You always hear the term 'globalism' used in an economic context-the Nikkei average and the NASDAQ-but culture is all over the place. I want people to understand that globalism also refers to what people see here at the museum."

sharon patton History of a Historian
Patton, 54, became the ninth director of the college's highly-respected museum in October. She came to Oberlin from the University of Michigan, serving as associate professor of art history and director of the university's Center for Afroamerican and African Studies. From 1988 to 1991, she was chief curator at the Studio Museum of Harlem in New York, where she organized several acclaimed exhibitions including "Memory and Metaphor: The Art of Romare Bearden, 1940-1987," a major retrospective of the influential artist best known for his energetic, jazz-inspired collages, and "The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s," an ambitious collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art. She is widely published (a new book African-American Art was released by Oxford University Press in 1998), and is the author of numerous catalogues, articles, essays, and book chapters. The Chicago native earned her doctorate in 1980 from Northwestern University. At Oberlin, she succeeds five-year museum director Anne Moore, and acting director Marjorie "Betsy" Wieseman, curator of Western art before 1850.

Considering Culture
The new director's speciality, West African and African-American art, provides Patton a unique perspective in defining the role of an art museum. "Collecting relates to cultural patrimony, class, and nationality. What collections exclude is as important as what's included. The Western mind-set is very much one of collecting and preserving art. In African art, by contrast, preserving is not important. Still, preservation of cultural patrimony is a very important responsibility for museums. But the work of a museum is also about displaying art-pure aesthetics-as well as how art reflects culture and society. It's a sort of two-prong goal."

Patton, like most art historians of her generation, was trained to downplay the cultural context of works of art, particularly modern art and non-Western art. The credo was 'art for art's sake.'

"You don't think about it, but when you look at an ancient figure of Aphrodite or Zeus, you're always aware that it has some cultural or societal reference," she says. "Even during that period when analysis of art was completely focused on the purity of medium-mark, form, texture, color-there was still the cultural background. Now people have gotten past only focusing on style and are more willing to acknowledge that art represents ideas, cultural, and political history."

Part of that shift back from pure aestheticism has to do with a growing awareness that people who visit museums have unique cultural backgrounds that likely affect how they experience museums.

"Prior to the last 20 years or so, the exhibiting of art operated on certain assumptions that when people came into a museum they already had 'clues' necessary to understand the art. A museum can no longer make that assumption. You can no longer stand back and say, 'you either understand it or you don't,'" she says.

"Museums are more accountable to their audiences now. That's probably partly due to the mass media and partly an expression of democracy. Combine that with major cuts in arts funding in the schools, and museums are taking on more of an educational role. The interpretive materials have to be better and more extensive. One of the goals I have is to strengthen the education department so that it more actively engages outside the college, into the town and to Lorain County."

But even these broad-reaching ideas are predicated on the belief that the Allen Memorial Art Museum has something of great value to offer Oberlin students-all students, not just the artsy types. Collaborative projects with others on campus, such as the new environmental center, could be one way of spreading that news.

"The Intermuseum Conservation Institute (founded in 1952 as the nation's first cooperative art conservation laboratory), is a natural collaboration opportunity. It's hard science in the context of art.

"Students also need to find out early on what's out there in the way of careers-we need to provide them with a good foundation and also address pragmatic concerns. Teaching is foremost at this college, and the museum is a natural match, not just for art history and studio art, but for all the humanities."

In meeting these ambitious goals, Patton's first priority is to develop a five-year plan. "We need to increase funds for publications as well as for acquisitions," she says. "I'd love to see money raised to restore the murals on the ceiling of the sculpture courtyard. I'd like to strengthen the collaborations with other institutions. I'd like to organize traveling exhibitions-it's a way of promoting the college, the collection, and the staff.

"I would love to have students put on their own small shows-select the works according to a theme, do all the framing and matting, do the installation, the labels-they could really learn about that aspect of museum work. We need space for an experimental gallery for faculty and curators, that could also be the space to show student work. We'll also need to find a good place to display recent acquisitions.

"As far as my own field goes, I would like to see more contemporary African-American artists in the collection. There's a whole generation that was almost ignored around the country from the mid '60s to the '80s. And our collection could really use a sculpture by Edmonia Lewis, a renown 19th-century African-American artist who worked in Italy. After all," Patton laughs, "she studied at Oberlin."

GREG DONLEY is a writer and designer with the Cleveland Museum of Art.