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Mount Holyoke Buys In To Chihuly

ChihulyHolyokeWhen John Stomberg took the job as director of the Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art, expectations were that he’d take it in a more contemporary direction. That was his area of expertise at Williams College, where he was chief curator. He is doing that. As he said in a video posted online, the Mount Holyoke museum has always skewed toward Renaissance and ancient art, and needs to fill out the collection with contemporary works.

But I was surprised by the announcement — to be unveiled officially on Sept. 3 — of the “major–and gorgeous– ” sculpture it has just acquired. It’s by Dale Chihuly. It is very stunning [pictured at left], but it’s far from cutting edge. Clear and Gold Tower  “resembles tongues of pale fire, shimmering plant tendrils, or wisps of mist, all spiraling improbably upward as if embodying the aspirations of the Mount Holyoke community,” the description sent to me says. It’s 12 feet tall and will reside in the museum’s courtyard.  It was, in fact, commissioned by the college, a gift of the Centennial Class of 1937.

It consists of more than 450 handblown glass elements, with each section highlighted by fragments of 24-carat gold foil, “creating a shining sculpture that seems to move organically. Sophisticated theatrical lighting will vary with the ebb and flow of natural light, ensuring that the sculpture sparkles day and night.” Pretty poetic language.

(BTW, this is another big Chihuly presence in Massachusetts: the MFA, Boston, bought one just about two years ago.)

Stomberg — in the video — took up the theme that many college art museums share: that art is central to the learning experience, no matter what a student’s major is, because it helps spur creativity. “It’s a visual world out there,” he says, adding that the college must “teach our students to be smart visual thinkers.”

‘Tis a desire devoutly to be wished, there and everywhere.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art, © Chihuly Studio, 2013



  1. Kathleen Whitney says:

    It defies reason that such a commercial work was even considered, especially considering all the more interesting choices that might have been purchased.
    I predict that this confection will be an embarrassment within a decade and forgotten in storage after that.

  2. I agree with Kathleen Whitney. I also think the lime green icicle the MFA in Boston bought is an embarrassment. It’s most definitely NOT art, just a piece of gigantic decoration, & it’s another sign of the bad taste of Director Malcolm Rogers. Rogers has created a reign of tacky at the MFA with exhibitions of Ralph Lauren’s cars, Herb Ritts photographs, & selections from the decidedly second rate Koch collection. I had no idea bottom line could be so bottom!

  3. Alan Helms (which one?) is right. The Boston MFA Chihuly piece (and, by extension, all Chihuly) is “NOT art, just . . . gigantic decoration.” And John Stomberg is wrong that, as you put it, art “helps spur creativity.” The paintings in the extraordinary “Civil War and American Art” exhibition at the Met (closes this week!), for example, spur many worthy things in viewers, but “creativity” is not one of them.

    While some may applaud Mount Holyoke’s collection of so-called contemporary art, it’s lamentable that it, and no other college art museum (and few public museums for that matter), possesses any contemporary Classical Realist art (see images at the Ann Long Fine Art and the Florence Academy of Art websites). Where else are students to learn that such work even exists? Not in their classrooms and lecture halls, for certain.

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

  4. Emily Wood says:

    The sculpture, a wonderful gift from the donors to the Museum and to MHC in honor of the Class of 1937, is going to be in the Library’s atrium, where it will spring from a 16th-century wellhead from Murano that is situated at the courtyard’s center. As an alum (and, in interest of full disclosure, former Fellow at the Museum), I can attest to the fact that the work – even just news of it’s installation – is already inspiring and exciting alumnae and current.

    The Museum has been making interesting and diverse acquisitions recently, including works by Kara Walker, Bin Danh, Lin Tianmao, Hendrik Martensz. Sorgh, Dorothea Tanning, Afruz Amighi, Carrie Mae Weems, and Bartolomeo di Giovanni. Honestly, Chihuly has wider popular name recognition than these artists and “Clear and Gold Tower” is a great addition to the campus that will sit in the heart of the Library’s busiest area. Hopefully the publicity around this acquisition will encourage people to explore the rest of the Museum’s exciting collection.

  5. I don’t really understand how anyone can say that the Chihuly piece is “not art.” It certainly was envisioned (if not hand created) by an individual and has no counterpart in the real world (unlike, say a Damien Hurst or Jeff Koons piece, or for that matter, much of Andy Warhol’s output). Calling it decoration doesn’t make it cease to be art. The Bard Graduate Center just closed an exhibition devoted to a huge collection of decorative art pieces from the Met that included things like wall panels and chair frames; the Met is a museum of art. The Louvre has a vast separate museum devoted to French decorative arts. Someone might not like Chihuly’s work (I do like it) but it’s as much art as anything else being produced and shown in galleries today. Whether it will last is another question.

    But, to take another case, I doubt that many people at the time expected that the purely utilitarian objects created by the Tiffany company would end up as prized possessions of art museums., but we certainly still go to see Tiffany lamps when they are in exhibits. And the Met has an exhibit of Faberge objects on view right now. I personally think Chihuly will last.

    • Your comments are well taken. When I say that Chihuly’s work is not “art” I’m using this term in the sense of “fine art,” which is usually distinguished from “decorative art.” This distinction is reflected in the Met’s Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Art, which, it says, includes “sculpture in many sizes and media, woodwork and furniture, ceramics and glass, metalwork and jewelry, horological and mathematical instruments, and tapestries and textiles.” In my view, Chihuly’s work is at best “decorative art” in the sense suggested by this listing. – L.T.

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