Thom Collins ’88 on the Museum Experience

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On Saturday October 24, the director and president of the Barnes Foundation, Thom Collins ’88, delivered the annual McCabe Lecture in the Lang Performing Arts Center Pearson-Hall Theater. Titled Somewhere Better Than This Place: The Art Museum and Alternative Social Experience, the lecture detailed aspects of museum theory and how visitors have engaged with in the past and could engage with in the future the artwork on display and with their fellow visitors.

As a director of several museums over the course of his career, Collins has been interested in harnessing the structure and format of the art museum to connect with the world of communities beyond the museum’s walls, and his talk was exciting and innovative as a result. I caught up with Collins after his lecture and asked him about his time at Swarthmore and his personal goals for the museum as an institution, and walked away with some career advice to boot.

The Daily Gazette: What was your experience at Swarthmore, both generally and in the art history department?

Thom Collins: I had a great experience at Swarthmore. I encountered ideas and had experiences that I never anticipated. I came in as a pre-med person, fulfilled my pre-med requirements, but fell in love with art history, and [I was] also very interested in the history of religion. And I was inspired by the ideas I encountered here. It’s that easy. That’s how it happens. It was a really magical experience. And I’m so grateful. I did the honors program, and when I went to graduate school it was a breeze: it seemed like an extension of what I was already doing here. The program here is so strong, so rigorous, so smart. It was really a transformative experience for me. It’s exactly what you hope college is going to be, particularly a liberal arts college, a liberal arts education: you hope that its going to bring you into contact with new ideas and offer you new experiences that will change the way you think, feel, and behave. That’s really what it did for me and I can trace so much of my orientation to the world to my experience here, to things I learned, and also the ethos—not just specific contents [but also the] ethos of the place—it’s democratic, it’s egalitarian, it’s open. I think it’s part of the Quaker consensus building tradition, but it really is a respectful forum for dialogue around difficult issues. It’s exactly what I needed—a nice kid from the [Philadelphia] suburbs needed. It was exactly what I needed to really open me up to the world in the right way and that’s what this place did.

DG: As someone who has gone through most of my Swarthmore education, I’ve become very interested in issues of social justice and how they apply to art museums and art institutions. Do you ever find that there’s pushback from other institutions: what people might perceive as a politicizing of art?

TC: That’s an interesting question. You know, there is a spectrum, from your very conservative on the one end to institutions like the contemporary museum in Baltimore, which is more or less deliberately homeless and it works to bring artists into the community and create projects in dialogue with the community, on the other end. It aims to be a pure catalyst, using art as a pure social catalyst, as opposed to the institutional experience, which is about the other end, the old-school white cube business, which is about markets and money and so forth. Is there pushback? Not a lot of active pushback, as I’ve said but I think there are institutional postures, there are certain artists […] that will just never show in certain kinds of institutions because their work is too oriented to the issues I’m describing. It seems far away from this purely disengaged aesthetic realm and there are so many challenges, but there is no active tension. My whole thing is, let’s open things up. Let’s open things up. There’s no reason it can’t be a “both/and,” right? The idea that putting an extended label up that describes the context in which an object was created and why its relevant, to me: if you don’t want to look at the label, you don’t have to look at it, so what’s the big deal? Even at the Barnes, where it’s very difficult, we have very elaborate publications and very elaborate audio guides. I think it can be a “both/and”: if people want to have that kind of pure sensory engagement with no ideas to distract them, that’s fine, they don’t have to read [the labels].

DG: In your talk, you mentioned the importance of the issue of the diversity of the artwork in the space mirroring the diversity of the community: could you elaborate?

TC: I think it’s critically important. First of all, these are public institutions. They receive a tax deduction, and if you read the tax code, the tax code explains that you’re getting a tax deduction because you’re offering a broad public good. If you’re offering a broad public good, then that’s your obligation, that you have to really serve the full community. What does a cross-section look like? And I believe that in all those things — you need governance, you need staff — everything about the museum needs to look like the community if you want people to really engage. People have to see themselves in what you exhibit in some way. You have to connect them to it somehow. And the easiest way to do that is to offer them aspects of experiences they recognize or images of themselves, on some level. That’s very important. I think we did that very successfully in Miami. It’s absolutely critically important. There are ethical issues, there are legal issues: it’s just common sense, right? It’s common sense that people want to be engaged. They need points of connection, and that’s the easiest way to create points of connection.

DG: Have you encountered pushback on that issue?

TC: First of all, it’s very challenging. You will find that most boards do not look like the communities that they serve. And it’s challenging, but its certainly not impossible, and I think its an obligation. You work on it. And [it’s the] same thing with staffing. You do a search, and whenever we’re doing a search for a new job at the museum, I always say: you hire the best candidate, but I want to see a diverse applicant pool. So you have to find me diverse applicants. If minority students don’t make these connections — you look at statistics, and you have to think to yourself, there are plenty of African American artists, there are plenty of African American art history students — so where are they in museums? One could say the same thing about women, frankly. It’s still bad with regard to art collections — women still are underrepresented in collections and exhibition programs, but it’s better — the representation on museum staffs is more even. It’s really difficult, its very challenging: you have to do it very actively, it has to be an institutional goal.

DG: As far as women in the field go, what I’ve noticed is that most of my art history classes had more women than men—I was in one class with more men, and it was six guys and five girls—

TC: And yet there are still way more male museum directors.

DG: And more scholars. Do you see that landscape changing? 

TC: I think that has changed. I think that the museum administrative landscape has changed quite a bit since I’ve been in it. Where it has not changed is the representation of women in museum collections, which is very strange.

DG: I’ve noticed that–I just went to the National Gallery. 

TC: [laughs] Oh yeah, forget it! Are there any women on view?

DG: Well, there’s some Cassatt—I mean, Cassatt’s great. It’s always great to see that.

TC: [laughs] Yeah, but come on—there are other artists!

DG: There was some Morisot, but I mean, there wasn’t exactly a lot of Clara Peeters, or Angelica Kauffman, or [Artemisia] Gentileschi—no one like that. So what made you decide to take that step from curator to director?

TC: I felt like there needed to be some more leadership in the field around these issues, and that’s really it. I mean, it’s interesting to me. I like being a director. I don’t get to do much curatorial work anymore, but I still love teaching, and I think that much of what I do as a director is still a function of the teaching mission of the institution. Even something like fundraising, which I do a lot of—you have to teach people about why what you’re doing is important.

DG: So what advice do you have for students like me? 

TC: I think you’re doing exactly what you should be doing. I think the most important thing you could be doing is do your academic work, you stay excited about the work, you get as knowledgeable as you can, then you build a professional network for yourself. It’s a very small field, it’s a very competitive field, and there are plenty of really bright, really talented, really prepared and really enthusiastic people, but what makes a difference is having the experience and building a network. Interning is brilliant for both reasons—both because it helps you hone your knowledge and your skill, and also because you’re building a network for yourself which will pay off.

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