Students and Museums Profit Via Creative Collaborations

The Romans defined the liberal arts as grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. CUNY has always had broader aesthetic vistas, evidenced now through pioneering partnerships with the city’s leading cultural institutions.

A partnership between Baruch College and the Rubin Museum involves students and faculty in cultural projects extending beyond typical museum visits.

From Baruch to Lehman, from CCNY to Queensborough Community College, CUNY students are curating art shows, critiquing masterworks, combing historic archives and researching the natural sciences in museum laboratories, changing themselves in the process.

Michael Prettyman, 45, an artist and CUNY Baccalaureate candidate now at Hunter, has painted rain forest and dolphin dioramas for the American Museum of Natural History. He spent the summer creating a 50-foot-tall hanging scale model of the solar system for a Canadian astrophysicist. Closer to home, he designed a mural for New York City high school students and AmeriCorps volunteers to paint on Van Brunt and Wolcott Streets in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Said Prettyman, “I’m trying to translate what scientists have found and convey a sense of truth and wonder to the public.”

Other CUNY cultural partners, where students get in free or at minimal cost, include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Rubin Museum of Art, El Museo del Barrio, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Historical Society, and the Queens Museum of Art.

Nowhere is the collaboration closer than at Baruch, where a five-year plan, backed by a promised $1 million gift, has begun engaging all 17,000 students in programs of the Rubin Museum, the premier showcase of Himalayan art in the Western world.

“This project is unique in its attempt to connect students and faculty to the Rubin Museum in ways that move beyond the traditional ‘visit to the museum,’ ” said Stan Altman, a former Baruch president who worked with Tibetan refugees in the 1980s and was instrumental in securing a pledged $200,000 a year for five years from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation that underwrites projects at the museum, located in a redesigned portion of the former Barney’s store at 150 W. 17th St.  As part of the project, Baruch paid $3,000 for an institutional membership allowing students and faculty to visit the museum free and underwrote institutional memberships for Hunter, John Jay, and Queensborough and Borough of Manhattan community colleges.

All Baruch freshmen viewed a PowerPoint presentation about the museum and were able to fulfill their art requirement with museum visits and studies of the art.   A writing competition soliciting essays about the exhibits drew four winning entries rewarded with prizes of Apple iPad2s. Six faculty members were named Rubin Fellows, receiving grants of $5,000 each plus $2,500 for a student assistant.  And five more Rubin Fellows were just appointed, for a total of 11.

They brought classes to the museum and designed assignments using the collection. One, Lilia Ziamou from the Zicklin School of Business, an accomplished sculptor, used her Marketing Management course to suggest marketing strategies for the museum.

In his recent, first-year report on the project, Altman wrote, “A key assumption is that exposure to the Museum’s art collection and exhibitions will transform their perceptions of themselves, help them question their moral values and broaden their sense of social responsibility through learning about other cultures.”

Beyond Baruch, other creative collaborations include City Tech’s work with the Brooklyn Historical Society and other schools in a federally funded initiative called Students and Faculty in the Archives: History Museums, Colleges and Critical Thinking. “The goal is to engage students in archival research early in their college career,” said Matthew K. Gold, an assistant professor of English among 18 faculty members who bring their classes into the society’s Othmar Library for original research. His class has been searching for traces of Walt Whitman in official records. “One student found his name in a land conveyance,” Gold said.

The Rockefeller Foundation awarded a two-year, $200,000 grant to Queens College and the Queens Museum of Art in fall 2010 to develop a pilot program for a master of fine arts degree in social practice. They presented the Yes Men, Incubate, Ted Purves, Larry Bogad and Pablo Helgera — all well known artists notable for their avant-garde performances tweaking the establishment. The Queens Museum’s first artist-in-residence, Tania Bruguera, offered a project, Immigrant Movement International, using college students as interns and assistants.

With Queens College also enjoying a close relationship with the Rubin, a class on East Asian Civilization will be taught at the museum this fall by professor Gopal Sukhu from the Department of Classical, Middle Eastern, Asian Languages and Cultures. A minor in Tibetan and Himalayan Studies is in development.

The Lehman College Art Gallery has a long-standing collaboration with El Museo del Barrio, New York’s leading Latino cultural institution. For the first time the Museo’s biennial event, The Street Files, is being staged in the five boroughs, with an installation at the Lehman art gallery. The exhibit, through Jan. 6, 2012, features “the most innovative, cutting-edge art created by Latino, Caribbean and Latin American artists currently working in the greater New York area.”

Hunter students have worked on exhibits with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For the recent “Objects of Devotion and Desire,” curated by art professor Cynthia Hahn in spring 2011, Hunter students worked with the Met for the loan of five medieval reliquaries.

The Gallery and Museum Studies program at Queensborough has collaborated with the Whitney, the Met, MoMA, and the Rubin, among other museums. This past semester students assisted with the installation of “Through the Eyes of Our Ancestors,” an extensive exhibition of African masks, costumes and ceremonial objects.

QCC’s Harriet and Kenneth Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center and Archives has also designed exhibits sought by other institutions. This summer the Virginia Holocaust Museum showcased “Defying the Devil,” about Christian clergy who helped Jews escape the Nazis. The Holocaust Center of Suffolk Community College is showing “Goose Stepping on Long Island: Camp Siegfried,” focusing on Nazi camps in New York’s backyard in the mid-1930s. The Kupferberg center  exhibited  “Come from the Shadows: The Story of the Comfort Women of Korea, Rape as a Weapon of War.”

Bronx Community College is the home of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, a 630-foot open-air colonnade designed by Stanford White and originally gifted to NYU in 1901. The hall and its 98 busts were acquired by CUNY with the University Heights campus in 1973. Starting this fall, said director Wendell Joyner, English and history classes will make required trips there for educational assignments.

City College professors with appointments as scientists at the Museum of Natural History include Robert Anderson, Amy Berkov, Ana Carnaval, David Lohman and Robert Rockwell. Yael Wyner, an environmental educator in CCNY’s School of Education, also has a museum appointment. The chemistry department’s John Lombardi is working with the Met on restoration of paintings.

York College’s Mande Holford, assistant professor of chemistry, is a research associate with the natural history museum, working in the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics. Three of her students are sequencing the genes of snails there. Kingsborough Community College geology professors Michael K. Weisberg and Harold Connolly, and chemistry professor Homar Barcena, also have a relationship with the museum: Working from its extensive collection of 4,000 meteorites, Weisberg’s students have performed chemical analyses of still-untested samples.