WILLIAMSTOWN -- Artworks of all eras and forms interest Christina Olsen, Williams College Museum of Art’s new director, both as historical documents and objects of meaning for people today.
Now, three months on the job, Olsen introduced her goal of building up a community focused on the discussion, creation and understanding of art during a talk at the museum Thursday.
Leading a crowd through several of the museum’s many galleries, Olsen identified the broad-ranging displays as "machines for learning to animate discussion within a class setting."
"I really like thinking about and studying how people develop relationships with works of art, and that’s the at the core of what I want to do here," Olsen said.
Olsen went on to demonstrate how such an arts community can thrive today -- by student and local participation, innovative curation and educational programming, and use of the Internet and other outreach techniques to engage new audiences.
Throughout the tour, Olsen referenced a career of field-gathered experience. She spent 11 years at the Getty Foundation and Museum in Los Angeles, awarding grants to museums and archives worldwide, saying it was "an incredible bird’s eye view of what’s happening globally."
Also in Los Angeles, Olsen led an initiative to develop a standard online catalog model many museums would come to follow. Most recently, Olsen worked at Portland Art Museum
Suzanne Silitch, Williams College’s associate director of communications for the arts, put these qualifications at the top of the list of reasons the school chose Olsen.
"We were particularly interested in [Christina’s] technology and community engagement skills," Silitch said. "The mission of the Williams College Museum of Art is to advance teaching and learning, and it seems that in the 21st century, technology very obviously plays a major role in all of the museum’s dealings."
Olsen’s objective, Silitch added, is to continue "learning the culture, the community, the campus -- then set priorities for the museum. ... The key is to help increase awareness of the museum."
Olsen acknowledged as much herself, adapting as she is to the ways of the Northeast.
"It’s very different culturally. I’ve never lived in New England," Olsen said. "... I’d like to know the place, its history and what it means. You have to know your context to do any good work."
Including Olsen, three candidates rose to the top during the nationwide search to fill the position. Each was tapped to visit the school, give public talks and field questions from locals. Olsen was hired in January.
Olsen holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree and doctorate, both in art history, from the University of Pennsylvania.
In terms of operation, Olsen spoke of potential collaborations with local museums like the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams and the nearby Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Regarding curation, Olsen stressed the importance of the contemporary, even while expounding upon a love for classical art.
"[The museum will have] a commitment to experimentation and risk," Olsen said. "All museums operating today can and should."