Treasures on Chapel Street

December 11, 2017

The Yale Center for British Art (YCBA), one of the finest university art collections anywhere in the world, celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year. Just across the street, the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) is also marking a milestone—five years since it reopened following a major expansion and restoration. 

These superb institutions are Yale treasures, and they are free and open to the public nearly every day of the year. They serve Yale’s core missions of education and research—providing opportunities for artists, scholars, conservators, and students—and they help us “share Yale” by hosting special events, programs, and lectures that are open to everyone. 

Across our university, the arts are a springboard for discussion and understanding. The Levin Teaching Gallery, part of the YUAG’s recent renovation, welcomes students from many disciplines to reflect on rotating displays of items from its permanent collection. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, students from the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies held a workshop on environmental justice in that space. They observed one photograph that appeared to show destruction from a natural disaster, but then they realized it depicted the construction of a hydroelectric dam that displaced 1 million people. Engagement with the arts provided an opportunity for the students to have a more complex and challenging discussion.

Today, technology is helping us to expand access to our important collections and support arts research around the world. This summer, the YCBA made nearly 70,000 images from its collection available to the public as part of the International Image Interoperability Framework Consortium. Anyone can view, use, and compare YCBA images to works from other libraries, universities, and collections—vastly increasing opportunities for research without having to visit dozens of different museums in person. 

In 1966, a gift from Paul Mellon ’29, a generous university benefactor and scion of a storied American family, established the YCBA, which houses a large portion of his extensive personal collection of paintings, drawings, and books as well as more recent acquisitions. Mellon believed deeply in the center’s educational mission, and he wanted to support the work of scholars and students as well as promote greater appreciation of British art. 

Mellon wrote, “I have been an amateur in every phase of my life; an amateur poet, an amateur scholar, an amateur horseman, an amateur farmer, an amateur soldier, an amateur connoisseur of art, an amateur publisher, and an amateur museum executive. The root of the word ‘amateur’ is the Latin word for love, and I can honestly say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all the roles I have played.”

Mellon certainly benefited from his family’s extraordinary wealth; however, we can all learn from his celebration of amateurism. Even at Yale, home to many experts and specialists, there is value in being an amateur. Perhaps you are not a gifted artist (I am not!). Perhaps you do not know very much about different types of music, or you have never seen a dance performance. At Yale, we are all surrounded by opportunities to experience different art forms and learn from them. (Make sure to check out the university arts calendar often.) In turn, the arts inspire creativity, new ideas, and fresh perspectives in all of us—experts and amateurs alike.

I hope you will take time to visit Yale’s magnificent art collections soon. Through December 31, you can see “Britain in the World” at the YCBA, which includes more than 500 works, many are part of Mellon’s original collection. Then walk across the street to the YUAG and experience two fascinating exhibits: “Artists in Exile: Expressions of Loss and Hope” and “Before the Event/After the Fact: Contemporary Perspectives on War.” I promise you will be challenged, inspired, and refreshed—whether this is your first visit or your fortieth.