Princeton’s Art on Hulfish Offers a Model for Museums Mid-Renovation

'Art about Art' will facilitate a conversation between the past, present and future: painters from the artistic canon are shown in dialogue with contemporary photographers in an exhibition that bridges the gap between what the Princeton Museum was and will be.

How can museums remain on the cultural map when renovations require their doors be closed to the public? As more and more institutions include expansion and modernization in their post-Covid-19 revitalization plans, this question has become increasingly important—especially given that most museums aren’t exactly rolling in dough. The pandemic left the arts sector facing an unprecedented financial slump most museums are still struggling to recover from.

Many are turning to public-facing renovations as the obvious answer to low attendance, but while an overhaul might benefit museums in the long-term, extensive upgrades can’t be put into place with people milling around inside the galleries. This intense revamping typically necessitates a museum-wide shut-down that can last anywhere from months to years. So how do art institutions not only provide cultural enrichment to an art-starved post-quarantine society but also make enough money to stay afloat while closed for rebuilding?

The Princeton University Art Museum has an answer. Although the Museum’s renovation plan preceded the Covid crisis (the new building, designed by the now-controversial Sir David Adjaye, was announced in 2018), the dilemma its curators and directors are facing is a familiar one. The Museum was forced to suddenly close its doors in March of 2020 when Coronavirus first reared its ugly head, but by March of 2021, the “COVID-driven closure” gave way to “construction-driven closure,” a long process that isn’t slated to end until 2025 (originally 2024). This five-year cessation is especially hard to swallow for Princeton students set to graduate in 2024 or 2025, who may never set foot in their university’s renowned Museum and cultural hub during their undergraduate years. 

No one’s more aware of the unfortunate consequences of the Museum’s shutdown than the staff, who have worked to find new ways to integrate art into the Princeton community since the institution first shut its doors. Digital programming flourished during the isolated days of the pandemic, but as the world slowly opened up, the Princeton University Art Museum reinstated in-person events and exhibitions, on-campus and off, and then launched a gallery project in downtown Princeton called Art on Hulfish.

Art on Hulfish, established in December of 2021, exists primarily to offset the community’s temporary loss of the Museum proper and will host four exhibitions every year until the Museum’s new facility opens its doors to the public. But rather than viewing these exhibits as a return to typical Museum programming simply housed in a different space, these showcases seem explicitly oriented to bridge the gap not only between the Princeton community and the Museum itself but between the Museum’s past and future. 

A photograph of a man in a turban, after "Portrait of a Man."
Yasumasa Morimura 森村泰昌, ‘Van Eyck in a Red Turban,’ from the series Self Portraits through Art History, 2016–18. Chromogenic print on transparent medium; 25.7 × 18.4 cm, 33 × 24.8 cm (frame). Yasumasa Morimura, courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

Art about Art: Contemporary Photographers Look at Old Master Paintings, opening August 19, is a perfect example of the role situational awareness can play in exhibit curation to great effect. This latest installment in Art on Hulfish’s 2023 exhibition series thankfully does not take on the gargantuan task of replacing the Museum’s role in the community or play placeholder for it in its absence. Instead, the exhibitions are used primarily to whet appetites and begin the process of rebuilding a community around the Museum in time for its reopening. Art about Art lets the Museum’s current suspension act as inspiration rather than just limitation, which could make all the difference.

Curated by Allen R. Adler Distinguished Curator and Lecturer Ronni Baer and European art curatorial associate Peter H. Fox, Art about Art dives deep into the Princeton University Art Museum’s near-encyclopedic collection of noteworthy works to discover new ways in which these pieces can be viewed, interpreted and experienced by artists and audiences alike. It’s not a substitute for the Museum, but it isn’t meant to be. It’s focused instead on tying students and citizens into Princeton University Art Museum’s past, present and future, which has the two-fold effect of helping visitors feel connected to the Museum even during its closure while also drumming up excitement for the institution’s eventual reopening.

“Because the Princeton University Art Museum is closed, as we rebuild, I wanted to remind the students and community at large that we have wonderful old master paintings in the collection that we can’t show at this time,” Baer told Observer. “I think the exhibition provides inspirational teaching opportunities, raising questions about identity and iconicity and how and why artists engage with the art of the past. But there are also moments of fun and whimsy and discovery that should have wide public appeal.”

The exhibition consists of over two dozen photographs and prints reimagining Old Master paintings through a modern lens. The works vary from playful (Vik Muniz’s tasty Double Mona Lisa, which renders the iconic half-smile in PB&J) to irreverent (Marcel Duchamp’s infamous L.H.O.O.Q., borrowed from the artist’s estate, does to Mona Lisa what sixth graders do to yearbook photos of classmates they hate) to meta-textually reflective—critics have long debated whether the man featured in van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man [Self Portrait?] was meant to be van Eyck himself, but Yasumasa Morimura’s Van Eyck in a Red Turban leaves no question about the subject’s identity: Morimura himself.

Each one of the thirteen contemporary artists featured in the exhibition finds new, imaginative and often subversive approaches to the classic masterpieces that hold permanent dominion over the cultural consciousness. With its combination of age-old master paintings, contemporary critiques and surprising send-ups of some of the most famous works of art in Western history, the exhibition is poised to draw both the artistically well-versed and the artistically ingenuous—both the Museum regulars missing its collection and the unlucky students who arrived too late to experience it.

Two Mona Lisas, rendered in Jelly and Peanut Butter.
Vik Muniz, “Double Mona Lisa (Peanut Butter and Jelly),” from the series After Warhol, 1999. Digital chromogenic print; 88.6 × 107 × 5.1 cm (frame). Vik Muniz

“As a teaching institution, it is part of our mission to assure that works of the past can still be understood as living, breathing objects that were contemporary in their own time, and thus still have the capacity to spark inquiry,” said Museum Director James Steward. “This exhibition’s examination of historical works of art, some of them well known, invites us to reengage with history—often in humorous ways—to help us contend with issues affecting society and culture today.”

Art about Art hopes to facilitate a conversation between our yesterdays and our tomorrows: painters from the artistic canon are put in dialogue with contemporary photographers, and the Princeton University Art Museum’s past is placed hand and hand with its future. And perhaps this is the best thing a museum under renovation can do: rather than try desperately to completely fill the hole left by a museum’s closure by emphasizing what is still available (which will only inevitably highlight everything that is not), museums could use that awkward interregnum to reflect on their own histories, to establish a meaningful and artistically significant connection between what was and what will be. The prolonged suspension could be viewed as a unique opportunity to reify the museum’s archival, ongoing and anticipated importance within its community, to honor its past and build up to its future. Just as Art about Art provides a space for modern artists to come into intimate contact with the masters of the past whose work remains influential to this day, the strange liminality of this kind of exhibition uniquely allows the Museum’s illustrious past and unknown, renovated future to converge—a liminal space that would not exist if the Museum were not closed for renovations.

All this to say: while a five-year closure is far from ideal, there is still meaning to be found and art to be celebrated in the interim. Perhaps it is possible to move forward with both construction and culture at the same timeperhaps all museums have to do is find a way to connect the two.

Art about Art: Contemporary Photographers Look at Old Master Paintings will be on view at Art on Hulfish in Princeton, New Jersey, from August 19 through November 5.

Princeton’s Art on Hulfish Offers a Model for Museums Mid-Renovation