The Art at the Heart of the Art Museum Director

James Steward Steers the University Art Museum Expansion

By Ilene Dube | Portraits by Erica M. Cardenas

Big plans are underway for the Princeton University Art Museum (PUAM).

In September, the museum announced Sir David Adjaye as design architect, in collaboration with Cooper Robertson as executive architect, for a new building that will offer “dramatically enlarged space for the exhibition and study of the museum’s encyclopedic collections, special exhibitions, and art conservation, as well as classrooms and office space for the 100-person museum staff.” It is expected to be “an inspirational space, a center of cultural gravity.”

In accepting the position, Sir Adjaye called PUAM “one of the finest university art museums and among the oldest art collecting institutions in America…. The reimagined museum will be the cultural gateway between Princeton University, its students, faculty, and the world, a place of mind-opening encounters with art and ideas.”

Born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents, Sir Adjaye, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2017, is known for such major projects as the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and the central pavilion and main exhibition spaces for the 56th Venice Art Biennale. Not only does Sir Adjaye have a proven track record of understanding museums and art, but he even understands Princeton — from 2008 to 2010 he served as a visiting professor. He is the first architect of color to design a building at Princeton University.

James Steward, the Nancy A. Nasher-David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, director of the art museum, calls Sir Adjaye “one of the most exciting architects working today, whose work operates in diverse ways, but whose museum work always begins with the object…. And he has a humbleness that is refreshing in the field of architecture.”

The challenge, for Steward, will be keeping the museum’s presence alive and vibrant during the time it takes to create the new building on the same site — the museum will have to close for two or more years beginning in 2020.

To be sure, the existing building is beloved by many who do not see the limitations it imposes. We have personal histories with buildings, based on our memories of the experiences we have had there, perhaps an evening picnic on the great lawn in front of the recently-installed Starn brothers’ stained glass sculpture, or a sudden epiphany while viewing the magnificent Antioch mosaics on the lower level. (During construction, the museum’s collections will be moved to a secure location.)

Gallery photographs by Ricardo Barros. Courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum.

Refining the Mission

Expansion of the museum was endorsed in 2016 by a group tasked with planning for the “Future of the Humanities” at Princeton. Their report said the museum “is in dire need of more space,” it has been “cobbled together over the years,” and its galleries are “awkwardly configured.”

Steward is leading the fundraising that quietly began two years ago. “We have made significant progress to have the confidence to go ahead with the design phase. Our goal is in reach,” he says.

And the timing couldn’t be better. “I have … spent a great deal of time lately thinking about whether and how art museums have operated, and might now operate, as ‘activist’ institutions,” writes Steward in the art museum’s fall magazine. “By this I do not mean as proselytizing, partisan institutions, but rather as ones that ask important questions and show work that might well foster debate and a reconsideration of accepted readings, and thus act as agent of change.” Steward, who is teaching an undergraduate course this fall titled “The Museum between Preservation and Action,” is writing a volume on the role of the museum in 21st-century civic life.

Prior to coming to Princeton in 2009, Steward served as director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, where he oversaw the planning, design, and construction for a major new building, recognized as one of the 10 best new buildings for 2010 by the American Institute of Architects.

Steward considers himself “a visually acute person, and that has implications on everything from installing a show to building design, to guiding curators from Chinese painting to contemporary photography,” as well as a social historian, connecting art with the history of the time.

Juliet balconies photograph by Alyssa Thiel. Courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum.

This Old House

Steward also has a passion for restoring old houses. In his Twitter profile, he calls himself “historic preservationist” (as well as “arts advocate, serious lover of serious food, equestrian, builder of community”). Comparing himself to author Peter Taylor, whom he describes as an “addict of old houses who bought and sold 35,” Steward jokes “I’m not that bad.”

With his husband, Jay Pekala, a customer relations specialist at McCarter Theatre and Whole Foods (the two met in Ann Arbor), Steward embarked on the restoration of a 1789 farmhouse on 60 acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains south of Charlottesville — a property he describes as “delicate.” But it was becoming a full-time job, and the couple sold it when they moved to Princeton. They restored the 1910 Arts and Crafts-inspired house they live in now — “we bought it from someone who owned it for decades, so while it suffered from benign neglect it had never had a bad update” — and their most recent project is a 1920s cottage on the coast of Maine. “It, too, was owned by the same family. The interiors gave the word rustic new meaning, but it had good bones and a wonderful location.”

An Early Education

As a child, Steward’s introduction to the world of art came from his mother, who trained as an artist. “She had tremendous visual passion, and I credit her for the path I took,” he recounted in the hours before a trip to Jacksonville, Florida, where the museum’s recent Frank Stella show is traveling, and then to San Francisco to lead a museum members’ trip.

His first museum visit was at 6 months old. His mother took him to museums when the family was living internationally — his father’s work as an economist for the Foreign Service enabled the family to live in India, Thailand, and Japan.

“Museums for me were never the alien environment they are for many who grow up believing they have to behave differently in them,” he recounts. “I had a great advantage in that museum-going was integrated into everyday life.”

His mother would paint in watercolor at the kitchen table, setting up a still life, such as a bowl of fruit on the table, and give him her supplies to work with. Though he describes a world of difference between her work and his, “I got from her that everything is worth looking at, whether a barn door or a work of art.” As a budding art historian, he went on to take classes in learning how things are made in various media.

A “foreign service brat,” Steward says there were two paths he might have taken: to never put down roots, or to put them down fast. “I chose the latter, so that an apartment I may have lived in for two weeks looked like I always lived there. I settle in fast, which is a useful skill.”

As a 16-year-old, Steward wanted to be an architect, and enrolled at the University of Virginia with the idea of studying design and drafting, “but before the first day of classes I decided it was not the career for me, even though I continue to love buildings and design.”

And of course the payoff is, “I understand the language of architecture, and that enables me to be a better client.”

Finding an area to focus on was a challenge for a person with omnivorous interests. “At some point I got the idea to go to law school as a platform to public service, so I studied history. The University of Virginia had powerful teachers who brought the past alive.”

Then he took his first art history class, and “it was magic from the beginning.” When the professor turned the lights down for slide shows, “he’d weave magical stories.” Steward left Charlottesville to study at the Sorbonne and Ecole du Louvre, and along the way picked up a second major in French language. From there he went to the Institute of Fine Arts at N.Y.U., and earned a doctorate in the history of art from Trinity College, Oxford University.

“Early on I realized I liked academic museums because I could be a curator and an academician,” Steward says. At the University of California at Berkeley, where he taught and curated, “I loved working with students on research-based exhibitions.” For his first exhibition on Edvard Munch, he had to quickly become a Munch scholar, and from there he went on to develop expertise on Chinese calligraphy and ancient Greece. “There is always something new — it’s what keeps it fresh.”

“Academic museums are not dependent on earned income,” Steward continues, “and can take on more esoteric topics than civic museums which have been challenged with the advent of blockbuster exhibitions.”

Gallery photographs by Ricardo Barros. Courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum.

Art of the Expansion

The construction he oversaw at the University of Michigan involved seven years of fundraising and planning, and two-and-a-half years of construction, during which time the museum had to close. It finally re-opened in the spring of 2009, just before Steward came to Princeton. “We were fundraising during the recession, constantly fighting to keep the project alive,” he recounts. “I worked with three presidents and seven provosts during that time.” A stipulation of the project for the state of Michigan’s flagship university was that 97 percent of the funding was private money. In contrast, Princeton University is putting up about half the cost of the project.

“People think I came here with the idea, but the last thing I imagined was doing another museum,” says Steward. His predecessor, Susan Taylor, had developed a plan for a satellite museum in the arts and transit district, but because of the financial crisis that project was put on hold. “I was relieved to not inherit that decision, but instead focus on building up the program and connections to the audience, growing attendance,” Steward says.

During his tenure, the entire collection has been digitized and put online; partnerships with other institutions and departments have been forged; and outreach to alumni has expanded. The annual Nassau Street Sampler, with free food, helps to lure 2,000 students into the museum. Film screenings and gallery talks on Thursday nights have also attracted more into the building. During 2015-16, attendance shot to 184,000 — up from 96,000 a decade earlier. And the museum has added more than 15,000 objects to its collection, building in areas of art by women artists of the middle to late 20th century, African American artists, Indian art, and photography not originally intended as fine art. The museum’s operating budget has risen to more than $17 million.

“It’s easier to fundraise for existing needs than to have the approach of ‘if you build it they will come,’” he says.

In reviewing Taylor’s plan for a satellite location, Steward determined that a multivenue model would incur more operating and security costs, and that there is a pedagogical advantage to having a globe-spanning institution under one roof.

Community Living Room

It’s too soon to talk about the new design, he says; so much remains to be determined during the design phase. At the moment, the plan is to preserve the Venetian Gothic Revival section, with its Juliet balconies.

Among the goals is to have the architecture reinforce the art museum’s position as a living room for the community, a gathering space, and place of learning that invites the public for a social experience; to grow the gallery spaces for collections and temporary exhibitions; to have the opportunity to exhibit more of the collection; to facilitate teaching; and to enhance conservation capabilities.

“The galleries need to be responsive to the needs of different periods of art, from small scale art of the Ancient Americas, to new media and contemporary art,” says Steward. Right now, Chinese scrolls in the collection cannot be fully unscrolled because the ceilings are not high enough.

Also built into the project will be flexibility. Spaces need to be adapted as needs evolve. “We can’t predict what the museum will need in 30 years from now, but this is a once-in-a-century project so it must serve needs we can’t yet anticipate.”

Steward expects to keep most of his staff throughout the project. “We will still be conserving, researching, planning the first five years of exhibitions — the last thing you want to do is to scramble to build a team when you’re opening a new building.”

Among the ideas Steward has floated to keep the museum alive during the project are to use the campus itself as gallery space; and to use Bainbridge House on Nassau Street, which the University is in the process of restoring. Steward is pleased with the discovery of a fabricator who can handcraft 18th-century windows that meet modern climate requirements. “The easiest way to mess up an old building is to mess with its windows,” he says.

Steward is looking forward to working with Sir Adjaye. “He is remarkably charismatic. He’s been tested by multiple museum projects, so he understands the lighting and climate control issues. It would be too risky to have a talented firm learning museums at our expense. Seeing the range of his output, David has persuaded me he has the goods and can create the space and detail it in beautiful and effective ways. He shares my belief that great architecture requires a committed client as well as an architect.”