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Speeches & Media

Great Stories Live in Museums

Putting Important Art at its Center Speaks Volumes About Smith

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Fall 2015

I remember the first time I visited an art museum on my own. My 10th-grade English teacher gave us an assignment to find a piece of art that spoke to us. I braved the Boston subway with a friend to visit the Museum of Fine Arts.

Renoir’s Le Bal à Bougival made so great an impression on me that I purchased a poster of it and hung it in my room. Later, I wrote about this moving portrayal of young love for an art history class at Tufts. As a psychology major, I focused on the relationship between the two dancers who stand apart from a swirling crowd. He leans in; she appears demure and yet there is a ring on her finger. Renoir was telling a story, and I was interpreting it. At the end of the day, every work of art tells a story about the human experience.

This fall brings the opportunity to reflect on the importance of art and art museums. On October 15, in the company of trustees, faculty, staff, students and longtime friends and supporters of the Smith College Museum of Art, we will dedicate the Carol T. Christ Asian Art Gallery, a 1,250-square-foot showcase for the most rapidly developing areas of the museum’s holdings. Funded by gifts from trustees, including a foundational gift from Peggy Block Danziger ’62, the new gallery will enable Smith to integrate Asian art across its increasingly global curriculum.

From the college’s earliest days, Smith’s leaders embraced two key tenets: the importance of international education and the transformative power of art. Smith’s embrace of Asia came early. At the start of the 20th century, Smith partnered in the development of Ginling College for women in Nanjing, China; alumnae raised substantial monies for Ginling and our faculty regularly participated in academic exchanges. In the 1960s, Smith was one of the first liberal arts colleges to teach Chinese language courses. Today, our faculty includes Asia specialists across the curriculum, in art, government, history, literature, philosophy, religion and more. 

A focus on Asia was a hallmark of Carol Christ’s presidency, a cornerstone of efforts to bring Smith to the world and the world to Smith. Later this fall, when I visit Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul, I will build on a network of relationships and opportunities that Carol, Ruth Simmons, and others before them cultivated on behalf of the college. I will meet with Smith alumnae and families whose longstanding and loyal connections to the college extend our commitment to women’s education worldwide.

The Smith College Museum of Art is a microcosm of Smith in the world. In recent years, the museum has become a dynamic partner in the life of students and faculty across the disciplines. Use of museum objects in the curriculum has grown exponentially, in courses ranging from art and landscape studies to English, French, East Asian studies, mathematics and chemistry. A museums concentration, established in 2009, gives students the opportunity to study the history, theory and cultural role of museums through coursework and internships. Recognizing the leadership roles that Smith alumnae play in the museum world, the program strengthens undergraduate opportunities for students to follow in their footsteps.

Beyond the campus, the museum is often the first experience of Smith for schoolchildren in western Massachusetts. Some 4,000 visit every year, with transportation and programming provided free by the college. In the context of drastic cuts to cultural education in our public schools, outreach from entities like SCMA is one of the few ways that young people have meaningful and memorable encounters with art.

I am enormously proud to lead a global college that puts an art museum at its center.  The Smith College Museum of Art is a place for learning, exploration, innovation and pleasure. I am grateful to the Smith presidents whose vision shaped one of the premier academic museums in this country. Our museum is central to Smith’s educational mission. Whenever you visit, I hope you are drawn to our collection and the stories each piece tells.