Faculty from all disciplines are invited to apply for a pilot Faculty Fellows Program being hosted this summer by the Syracuse University Art Museum. The program focuses on object-based teaching and research. It is both a way for the art…
5 Questions with the Syracuse University Art Museum’s New Curator
Melissa Yuen was appointed curator of the Syracuse University Art Museum on Dec. 1, 2021. She joined Syracuse from the Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and previously served as a curatorial fellow at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center.
SU News sat down with her to learn more about her role and her vision for future exhibitions at the Syracuse University Art Museum.
01What does a curator do, anyway?
I think of my job as curator as having two main components. With its roots in the Latin word curare, or to care for, a curator has the primary task of caring for a collection. For me, it specifically means to care for the collection at the Syracuse University Art Museum by researching and learning as much as we can about each of the 45,000 works of art that we have.
Another part of caring for the collection is thinking about how to expand our holdings in ways that reflect the diversity of today’s art world and the wide range of issues that artists are engaging with in their work.
The second part to my role is to curate exhibitions to share our collection with our community. I see this part of my job as a form of visual storytelling, and I find it endlessly challenging intellectually (and fun even!) to figure out how to bring different works together around a theme or issue and encourage the campus community to engage with it.
02Is the role of curator different at a university art museum than at a private, nonprofit museum?
Yes! The core audience at a university art museum is the university’s students, faculty and staff. While we seek to engage with Syracuse’s civic community and the wider Central New York region, we are always thinking about how we can engage the campus community during their time here at SU through our collections and the exhibitions we have on view. In doing so, we are working to position the museum as a site of research, where opportunities exist for all to use our holdings, whether they are on display in the galleries or in our storage vaults, to consider different issues through the visual medium of art.
03What attracted you to the role at Syracuse?
Primarily it was the museum’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion through its exhibitions and recent acquisitions, along with its emphasis on connecting with the Syracuse curriculum and creating a place that can bring students together. I’ve experienced firsthand how such experiences can transform a student’s time at university.
My engagement with my university art museum when I was an undergraduate literally changed my life—I started college with the plan of becoming a pharmacist, but after taking a series of art history classes that met at the art museum and used its collection, I now work as a curator at an art museum!
I also welcome the opportunity to work alongside the talented staff at the museum and get to know the collection—we have such a large number of works that it’s been fun discovering what we have in our holdings and thinking about the different ways we can share what we have with the vibrant campus community. Finally, I am really excited to develop collaborations with students and faculty so we can invite different perspectives into our collection and exhibitions.
04Are there opportunities for students to do research or projects with the museum?
Absolutely! We have 45,000 objects in our collection, and we always strive to learn more about each of the works that we care for. We welcome students who are interested in conducting primary research—with both art objects and archival materials—to help us not only learn more about the objects but also to help us think about how we can present these works to our audiences. What stories can we tell? And equally important, what stories are not represented and how can we remedy that?
05As a society, we are facing a lot of tough issues. Why is art important? How can art inform our thinking about current issues?
I think art has this wonderful ability to inspire conversations that can bring together different viewpoints. We live in such a visual world—images greet us at every turn—that I believe everyone can respond to what we see: how does a painting make you feel? What does this work of art remind you of? Is there a detail you are particularly drawn to?
These questions and responses are significant because we can use them to first build trust and community within a group, which is an important baseline to have before delving into the difficult issues that many artists have engaged with. In other words, art can provide many different entry points to begin understanding and discussing these tough issues.
06What do you consider some of the highlights of the Syracuse University Art Museum collection?
The museum has a rich collection—it is global in scope and spans 5,500 years of history. Many of our murals and sculptures can be seen around campus, including Ben Shahn’s “Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti” mural on the east wall of HBC, Malvina Hoffman’s “Elemental Man” in the Falk College courtyard, and Sol LeWitt’s concrete “Six Curved Walls” on the grassy hillside outside of Crouse College. Within the museum in Shaffer Art Building and thanks to the collecting efforts of previous directors and curators, we have great depth in prints, particularly those made in the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the artists whose entire print output are represented in our holdings include Karl Schrag, Richard Florsheim and Seong Moy.
We also hold artworks by important American and European artists, such as Anna Hyatt Huntington, Reginald Marsh, Martin Wong, William-Adolphe Bougeareau and Hyacinthe Rigaud. One of such highlights in our paintings collection is Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s “Forbidden Fruit,” which features a young boy peering over the edge of a table at a tower of watermelon slices stacked precariously atop one another with a table leg placed mysteriously next to it. The lurid colors that the Japanese-born painter used also adds to the work’s strangeness, as shades of lavender, yellow, and pink denote the room’s walls and floors. In addition to this painting, we are also fortunate to have two of the artist’s preparatory drawings in our collection, so that taken together, these three works can allow us to better understand Kuniyoshi’s creative process.
A personal favorite is Helen Frankenthaler’s “Untitled.” It is a horizontal painting that features different shades of greens and peaches, with a wonderfully tactile section of white at center. I was so surprised when I first saw the painting in person because Frankenthaler included some glitter pigment in her painting, so parts of the surface shimmer in the light!