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College and university museums are the hidden jewels of the U.S. art scene. They range from the traditional, like the Fogg at Harvard University or the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, to the more contemporary, such as the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson, which documents modern North American photography. Although some of their collections date as far back as the 18th century, they remain vital, undergoing change—frequently in the form of significant renovations by top architects—in the 21st century.
Some of these museums have unusual, often highly personal origins. The Wolfsonian at Florida International University in Miami Beach is the brainchild of Mitchell Wolfson Jr., heir to an entertainment-industry fortune. His goal was to create an institution that explores the active role design plays in shaping human experiences, perceptions and attitudes. The Hammer at UCLA grew out of a world-class collection of Old Masters paintings and drawings and works on paper by French 19th-century caricaturist Honoré Daumier and his peers—all amassed by Armand Hammer, chairman of Occidental Petroleum Corporation.
These institutions also tend to have an advantage over their off-campus contemporaries, formulating cutting-edge exhibits based on new research and ideas from academia. “[They] can take chances that non-academic museums often can’t,” says Jill Hartz, executive director of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon and president of the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries. “This makes us exciting places to see new things, find new connections. We’re in the community engagement business.”
William U. Eiland, director of the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia, believes university museums are even more community-oriented than they once were. “We believe scholarship and research are the basis for teaching and service,” he says, adding that academic museums provide arts education to the public—a necessity in today’s “visual, global society.”