Ian Berry: Teaching Students How To See

Director Ian Berry has established Skidmore College’s Tang Museum as a leader among teaching museums, transforming it into a laboratory that combines various disciplines with art

A college is a great context for getting at the things that are life changing and transformative about art,” says Ian Berry, director of the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. “You’re working with undergraduates who are figuring out who they’re going to be, learning how to be critical consumers of information, deciding what kind of tribe they’re going to land in.”


Ian Berry likes to think of the Tang as Skidmore’s surrogate football team.


Berry, 42, has dedicated his entire career to the fertile ground of college museums. After receiving his master’s degree from Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies and working for two years as an assistant curator at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts, he was hired in 2000 by the Tang’s first director, Charles Stainback. As founding curator, Berry collaborated with a small and diverse group of Skidmore faculty to establish a new and truly multidisciplinary museum.

“We wanted to engage traditional users of museums —artists, art historians, cultural historians, anthropologists—but also scientists, dancers, economists, geologists, environmental studies majors, business majors, physics students, and invite them into the museum to use their own vocabularies,” says Berry, who was promoted to director a year ago. “The focus on contemporary art has been a great decision for the museum because we could insert the artists into that interdisciplinary dialogue.” When he invited Alyson Shotz to do an exhibition at the Tang in 2003, for instance, he connected her with the college’s science faculty—since the artist’s work is informed by her study of science —and the entire freshman class was assigned to attend a lecture between Shotz and the professor of environmental studies. “It enacted in real time that someone who is working in something called ‘the art studio’ and something called ‘the biology lab’ can actually be responding to similar goals and ideas,” Berry says.

Since opening in October 2000, the Tang has become a leader in the world of teaching museums. It draws more than 40,000 visitors a year, and generates around a dozen exhibitions yearly, including substantial surveys of such contemporary artists as Fred Tomaselli, Amy Sillman, Richard Pettibone, Shahzia Sikander, Los Carpinteros, Trisha Brown, Tim Rollins and K.O.S., and Jim Hodges—many of which have traveled nationally to academic as well as nonacademic institutions. A large percentage of Skidmore’s professors design assignments around the Tang’s exhibitions and hold classes in the museum. “We want it to be a place on campus that everyone uses daily, like the library,” says Berry. “You don’t just come once a year to a big show, but you come in and out for whatever you need to use it for.”

The Tang is also distinguished by its large-scale interdisciplinary shows, which Berry organizes every year in partnership with various Skidmore faculty members who go on studio visits, write catalogue essays, and help design the exhibition layout. “I’ve been able to serve as cocurator of shows about the Hudson River, Shaker design, mapping, and variable stars—all things that I’m interested in but certainly not an expert on,” he says.

For the first of these shows, in 2001, which focused on the use of mapping in art and science, Berry asked a biology professor for an example of a dream object in his discipline. The professor’s response was James Watson and Francis Crick’s model of the DNA double helix—and together, the curator and the biologist were able to borrow the original prototype from Watson, who still had it in his office. Exhibiting that historic object alongside atlases of North America, 16th-century anatomical diagrams, and works by some 20 contemporary artists including Matthew Ritchie and Micah Lexier, Berry says, “teased out new connections that a curator working only with art objects might not have discovered.”

The current interdisciplinary show, on view through March 9 and titled “Classless Society,” was co-organized with an English professor and an economist. It explores the idea of class in America from various social and economic perspectives using music, film, literature, and advertising. These are displayed alongside artworks including photographs by Nikki S. Lee, in which she impersonates members of disparate communities.

Berry grew up outside Albany, where both of his parents worked in state government. He double-majored in studio art and art history at the University at Albany, State University of New York, but he quickly realized that his talents were curatorial. “I was spending more time making exhibitions for myself than I was thinking about what I was making,” he says. “I thought about ways I could still have a foot in the studio environment, which I loved, but use the skills I could offer.”

One of Berry’s art history professors introduced him to Ellsworth Kelly, who hired Berry as a a studio assistant after he graduated in 1995. “Ellsworth was a great teacher for me in many ways but most importantly in how to see, not just art but nature and forms all around us—how birds look when they fly, how leaves change during the seasons,” Berry says. The job also gave him a close-up view of the art world, as curators, museum directors, and collectors often came through the studio. He applied to Bard’s nascent curatorial graduate program, which proved to be an important training ground for contemporary curators, and landed a curatorial assistant job at the Williams College Museum of Art after a summer internship there. He didn’t know what would come of his move to Skidmore, “but the excitement of a startup was seductive,” he says. “We were only a few people, starting a museum from scratch where there had not been a history before.”

Today, Berry likes to think of the Tang as Skidmore’s surrogate football team. “The football team is a traditional way for a lot of people to enter into what seems like a very private place of a university or a college and see what’s going on for a few hours on a weekend,” he says. “Skidmore doesn’t have a football team, but the Tang is a place for the community and alums to rally around, a place for people to come in and see what students and faculty are thinking about.”

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