This past June, Meher McArthur was named the first Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler curator of academic programs and collections at the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery. McArthur is an accomplished author, curator, and educator with expertise in Asian art. This newly endowed curatorial position will reinforce the link between art history and the humanities at Scripps and make the permanent art collection a more accessible resource for students and faculty. Established by alumna Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler ‘72, this gift is a testament to her in-depth knowledge and appreciation of the arts, architecture, and humanities. The Scripps Office of Marketing and Communications spoke with McArthur to talk about her plans for the position, engaging more deeply with art, and playing favorites.
Scripps College: Most people are familiar with the title “museum curator,” but what does a curator of academic programs and collections do?
Meher McArthur: As the curator of academic programs and collections, I am working with the wonderful team at the Williamson Gallery to get to know the Scripps art collection—some 10,000 works of art!—and figure out ways to use the collection to serve the student body beyond the art and art history departments. I will also research certain parts of the collection and develop exhibitions and promote the collection by publishing articles about it for websites and magazines. I have already taught classes using some of the Asian art in the collection, and this involved selecting items that best exemplify certain artistic traditions. By improving my knowledge of the broader collection, I will then be able to work with faculty to select or “curate” aspects of the collection for use as teaching material for new and enhanced courses offered at Scripps. The curator will be a liaison between academic programs and the Scripps collections so that faculty members across the curriculum can access art objects and artifacts to enrich their teaching.
SC: You mentioned extending that programming to students outside of art and art history courses: what would that look like?
MM: As the new curator of the Williamson Gallery, I will reach out on behalf of the Gallery to college faculty members and suggest ways in which they can use parts of the collection in their teaching. In the past, the Gallery has contacted certain faculty members and invited them to bring their classes to the Clark Museum or to Baxter Hall to view and discuss art works as part of their syllabi. However, this has not yet happened on a large scale. One of my main duties will be to identify aspects of the collection that might enhance the teaching of subjects beyond studio art and art history—for example, using documentary photographs in a history or media studies class, or Japanese prints in a French language class. By bringing more students from different classes to see the collection, we will increase the Gallery’s academic programming across Scripps. I would also be interested in developing a series of talks at the gallery introducing aspects of the collection to the student body, faculty members, and the local Claremont community.
SC: You have come to Scripps with an extensive background in Asian art. Tell a bit about the Gallery’s current collection of Asian art, and how you would like to apply your expertise to the collection.
MM: The collection is strong in certain areas, in particular, the Japanese woodblock prints, textiles and accessories and Chinese paintings, costumes and cloisonné . . .
MM: Cloisonné is a type of metalwork in which a metal vessel is decorated with colored enamels that are separated by metal wires to create a pattern or design.
MM: No problem. We also have an impressive collection of Buddhist art and a growing collection of Asian ceramics. I plan to research those areas more deeply so I can find creative ways to introduce them to more students. For the areas where the collection is weaker, I hope to work with collectors to help fill in gaps with new donations. When I reach out to non-art faculty members, I will use my knowledge of the material to co-teach with those faculty whenever necessary. I write regularly for several websites so also hope to publish aspects of the collection to help promote the college’s collection locally, nationally and internationally. For example, I have published an article for a Buddhist website on the Japanese Buddhist robes called kesa, of which we have sixteen in our collection.
SC: How would you encourage a more hands-on, accessible approach to art?
MM: In museums, people often feel disconnected from and intimidated by the art they are looking at because they don’t have any framework for understanding it and they are physically separated from it by a glass barrier or a “do not touch” sign. I first became interested in Japanese art—my specialty—through ceramics. I not only admired their forms and colors but fell in love with their textures and was fascinated by their spiritual qualities. When I began to study Asian art history, I was lucky enough to take a course that allowed students to handle the art objects so that we could feel their texture, weight and materiality. Our teachers not only shared their knowledge but their passion for the art—helping to bring the objects alive to us and connect us more powerfully with their history and cultural significance. By offering classes in which students will be able to handle art objects and ask questions about their materials, techniques, makers, and patrons, I hope to form similar connections with Scripps students and these objects, helping them to understand their artistic significance and cultural value.
SC: If you could only display only one work of art from the Scripps Collection in your home, which would it be, and why?
MM: I became an art historian because I fell in love with Japanese ceramics when I lived in Japan. I love the irregular, natural beauty of many of the stoneware tea bowls, cups, and sake vessels that Japan’s potters have made over the centuries. There are quite a few examples of Japanese ceramics in the Scripps collection, some traditional works by unidentified potters and others by modern and contemporary ceramic artists. One of these artists, Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), was a major figure in the international folk art movement and the Japanese mingei (“folk art”) movement, embracing and promoting Japanese folk ceramic traditions at a time when many Japanese people were rejecting their own artistic heritage. Hamada visited Scripps in the 1950s, and we have several of his works in the collection. I am particularly fond of a sake bottle he made in the early 1950s that is a perfect blend of the traditional and modern. The bottle, which can also be used as a vase, is rectangular in form, the surface divided by a calligraphic green cross into four smaller sections and colored with iron-rich black and brown glazes. The bottle’s simple design, rich earth tones and elegant form remind me of much of what I admire about Japanese ceramics specifically and Japanese art and aesthetics in general.