Stephanie Wiles: The Yale University Art Gallery Looks Towards the Future

On 17 March 2021, by Tatsiana Zhurauliova

We spoke with Stephanie Wiles, The Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery about her vision for the gallery, the New Voices, New Perspectives, YUAG Strategic Plan, recent acquisitions and more.  

Stephanie Wiles, The Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery, Yale University Art Gallery.

Prior to coming to YUAG in 2018, Dr. Wiles served as the director of the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College and as the Richard J. Schwartz Director of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. She began her museum career at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City in the Department of Drawings and Prints. Wiles is a specialist in Old Master drawings and prints, and in British and American art. She received a Ph.D. in art history from the City University of New York Graduate Center, with her dissertation focused on the work of British-born artists Henry Farrer and Thomas Charles Farrer, a Ruskin admirer and leader of the American Pre-Raphaelites.

Dr. Wiles, what are some of the main projects that you have focused on since you arrived at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) in 2018?
Stephanie Wiles.
There have been several initiatives. Among those I’d like to highlight is the ongoing development of YUAG collection spaces at the West Campus Collection Studies Center. In Fall 2019, the Gallery opened the Hume Furniture Study, following the successful opening a few years before that of the Wurtele Study Center. These study/storage spaces are adjacent to a shared conservation lab and the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage. The potential of these study centers for teaching and research is vast, as is their size. For example, Wurtele is about the size of a football field and contains more than 42,000 objects that are accessible by scholars, faculty, and students.

How do these study/storage spaces function? 
Recognizing the fantastic potential of these spaces, we hired a wonderful new colleague Roksana Filipowska as the Wurtele Study Center Programs and Outreach Manager. Her role is to coordinate and develop all activities at the Wurtele Center, including class visits, collection processing, scholar appointments, tours, and exhibition planning. Roksana launched public tours of the Center in January 2020. Remote teaching and virtual programming during the pandemic have offered a few silver linings: virtual class visits to the Gallery now often include an introduction to the Center, and a recent public virtual event with artist Fred Wilson attracted over 700 attendees to learn about this incredible resource.

Are there other projects you currently developing?
Another project that I am actively championing is a more systematic and organized provenance research program for the Gallery. Over the past two years, we have published provenance records on the YUAG collections database for the first time and are seeking to enhance research, standardize and make accessible object ownership histories for greater ethical accountability. These are now for the first time clearly articulated on our website. To do this we have hired a wonderful colleague, Antonia Bartoli, as the Gallery’s Curator of Provenance Research. Antonia has specialized expertise in the Nazi period and was formerly Spoliation Curator at the British Library, London, and a provenance researcher for Christie’s auction house, New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Antonia is also working with our curators to begin to think about how gallery labels, provenance-focused tours, audio guides and publications might highlight this kind of research.
Many of our long-term goals are laid out in a new strategic plan that was completed in November 2020, “New Voices, New Perspectives, YUAG Strategic Plan, 2021-2026.” We began work on this pre-Covid and had the opportunity to adjust our goals post-Covid to respond to the pandemic and take advantage of new opportunities to build our technology infrastructure.

View of the African art galleries, Yale University Art Gallery.Photo: Jessica Smolinski

View of the African art galleries, Yale University Art Gallery.
Photo: Jessica Smolinski

What do you think are the main challenges facing university museums in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic? And what do you think might be some of the possible solutions?
S. W.
Museums have long been discussing what role we can play as museum professionals to contribute to the dialogue around racial injustice. The pandemic has brought new urgency, focus, and questions to how we will move this work forward. With the help of the Gallery’s staff, students, alumni, and visitors, we reflected on how we could ensure that our museum is an environment where every person—regardless of race, background, or beliefs—is treated with dignity and respect. Among the commitments laid out in this plan is to be more culturally responsive, become more relevant and effective, and connect more fully with our audiences in New Haven and beyond.
The Gallery’s new strategic plan reaffirms our core mission to collect, preserve, study and present art in all media and to serve as a center for teaching, learning and scholarship for our campus, community, and far-flung audiences. We add to that a vision of the future where we can fully activate the power of art to inspire our public—and to create a more inclusive world. To do that we are looking at our collections, permanent gallery installations, and the kinds of research we prioritize.
An exciting model of how we are seeking to create diverse collaborations is an upcoming exhibition, opening in fall 2022, “Bámigbóyè: A Master Sculptor of the Yorùbá Tradition”. A focused monographic exhibition organized by my colleague James Green and dedicated to the workshop of Nigerian artist Moshood Olusomo Bámigbóyè, this show will unite, for the first time, all major sculptures attributed to the artist’s workshop. A key goal of the planning process for this exhibition is to create opportunities for curatorial and conservation partnerships with colleagues from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments. We passionately believe that this type of collegial, cross-cultural exchange of ideas and expertise builds empathy not only within our own organization but also far beyond the Gallery’s walls.
As we all know too, the pandemic put a spotlight on museums’ shortcomings in technology. We are committed to investing more in this area to expand access to our collection--in person, in print, and online.
 

View of the Wurtele Study Center at Yale West Campus, Yale University Art Gallery.
Photo: Jessica Smolinski

View of the Wurtele Study Center at Yale West Campus, Yale University Art Gallery.

Photo: Jessica Smolinski

What is the YUAG’s strategy for expanding its online presence and digital features?
S.W.
We have begun work to develop and launch a new website that will expand online content, including resources for teaching and research. Among our top priorities is to provide open access to out-of-print publications and to develop a signature print publication series, with a related digital series focusing on the permanent collection. The Gallery is also actively participating in a Yale-wide Cross Collection Discovery platform which aspires to provide one central location for visitors to search Yale cultural heritage collections.

What is the next goal or challenge on your agenda?
S.W.
Amplifying DEIA [diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility] initiatives in ways that will help develop a new generation of art museum professionals, with a particular focus on those from historically underrepresented backgrounds. We plan to support additional post-graduate fellowship positions and expand current summer-internship opportunities for New Haven students. The Gallery’s conservation department is an important training ground for young conservators. We would like to build on and expand existing programs.

What are your hopes for expanding the YUAG collection in the coming years?
S.W.
As you know, our collection presents art in all media, from all regions of the globe and across time. We actively acquire in many fields, and we have large collections of art for which we don’t currently have individual curatorial expertise on staff. In partnership with the Peabody, we will be hiring a curator in Native American art. We also hope to establish and hire a curatorial position in the art of the ancient Americas following that. We wish to embrace a broad spectrum of perspectives and experiences to accurately present and interpret the breadth of global cultures and current practices. Establishing and hiring new curatorial positions will help us move these ideals forward.

What are some of your favorite recent acquisitions?
S.W.
Wangechi Mutu. We bought this from the 2019 Whitney Biennial. It’s a showstopper. You see it in our galleries adjacent to El Anatsui's Society Woman’s Cloth. We installed it directly from the Biennial. (There are 9 views of the Mutu in the link above. It’s shown in front of a LeWitt wall drawing and the 3rd and 6th view show a section of the El Anatsui.) Guercino’s St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness, a superb 1652 painting that was in the artist's collection until his death and subsequently descended in his family. A piece by Marie Watt, a Yale MFA alumnus like Wangechi Mutu and Do Ho Suh. Marie’s piece was acquired in conjunction with the Native American exhibition with the advice of our student curators. Do Ho Suh, a fantastic gift from the artist who evokes the fragility of memory in his poetic sculptures. Our Bulletin and Recent Acquisition list show some other favorites, including a 1625 still life by Orsola Maddalena Caccia.

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