In the spring of 2014, Aimee Caya had a decision to make. A few months shy of earning an undergraduate degree from George Washington University, she had just been accepted to the master’s program in art history at Case Western Reserve and offered a generous fellowship. But with other highly regarded schools courting her as well, she was still uncommitted.
That March, Caya attended an Accepted Students’ Day hosted by CWRU’s Department of Art History and Art. She toured the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), which has played an integral role in the university’s art history graduate programs for the past half-century. She met current students and faculty members and had a long conversation with her likely advisor, Professor Elina Gertsman, a specialist in late medieval art. Gertsman mentioned that she was developing a new course for the next academic year: a “collections seminar” devoted to close analysis of objects from the museum. A CMA curator would present several guest lectures, and the students would contribute to an actual exhibition, writing descriptive wall labels and entries for an illustrated catalogue.
By the end of her visit, Caya was sold. She enrolled at CWRU that fall, and by spring she was taking the seminar Gertsman had told her about. The privileges that came with this experience—direct access to rare objects and research materials, involvement in mounting an exhibition at a world-class museum, a chance to write for publication while still in graduate school—are not typically available to art history students elsewhere. But the university’s special relationship with the CMA, strengthened by a recent redesign of the doctoral program, has given the advanced study of art history at Case Western Reserve a truly distinctive character.
One impetus for enhancing the program came from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which in 2012 awarded the university and the museum equal shares of a $500,000 grant to create new courses; recruit CMA curators as teachers and mentors; and provide students with fellowships, internships and funding for research-related travel. Two years later, inspired in part by the Mellon Foundation’s example, Nancy and Joseph Keithley made a commitment of $15 million that will sustain these initiatives and further expand collaboration between Case Western Reserve and the CMA by endowing the Nancy and Joseph Keithley Institute for Art History.
Associate Professor and department chair Catherine Scallen, who holds the Andrew W. Mellon Professorship in the Humanities, says that the program redesign has been to the advantage of both institutions. “Our department wanted to train doctoral students in art history for the 21st century, and do so in a way that benefits the museum that gives us these extraordinary opportunities,” she explains. Gertsman’s innovative seminar, and the exhibition associated with it, provide an early example of this hope coming to fruition.
As soon as the Mellon grant was announced, Gertsman began exploring possibilities for a seminar based on what she calls the CMA’s “astonishing” late medieval collection. She wanted to include both sacred and secular art, emphasizing precious objects associated with piety and leisure in medieval Europe from 1300 to 1500. In the spring of 2013, Gertsman met with Stephen Fliegel, the CMA’s curator of medieval art, to consider her choices. They discussed religious carvings and devotional books, ivories illustrating scenes from courtly romances, even a mirror case that once belonged to an aristocratic patron. Inevitably, their conversation turned to one of the collection’s signature pieces: a gilt-silver table fountain, produced by an unidentified Parisian goldsmith in the early 14th century.
Out of hundreds of such fountains that once belonged to royal and noble households, the CMA’s is the most complete surviving example. Only 31 centimeters tall, it was conceived, says Fliegel, as “a piece of Gothic architecture in miniature.” Its crenellated towers, columns, vaults, arcades and parapets call to mind both castles and cathedrals. On the second of its three tiers, enameled plaques depict grotesque creatures—part animal, part human—as well as musicians with instruments in hand. But the Cleveland table fountain isn’t only a work of exquisite craftsmanship. In its day, it was also a source of entertainment and a technological wonder. When it was in operation, rosewater piped to its summit issued forth in jets and streams, turning wheels attached to bells, spouting from gargoyle-headed drains and filling the surrounding room or courtyard with scent.
Since joining the CMA in 1982, Fliegel had extensively researched the table fountain’s design and function, the likely identity of the patron who commissioned it and the meaning of its imagery. But though he had published some of his findings, he hadn’t yet presented them in an exhibition, where he could juxtapose the fountain with other examples of metalwork and enameling from the period and with manuscripts and paintings that shed light on the society and culture in which it was created.
“It’s something that I intended to do—but not now,” Fliegel recalls. But when he mentioned his idea to Gertsman, she took it up at once, excited both by the prospect of the show itself and by the learning experience it would provide to her students. Looking back, Fliegel says, “I think Elina’s passion was such that she prodded me into doing the exhibition sooner than I thought I would.”
They quickly worked out the details of their collaboration. Each of them would write an extended essay for the exhibition catalogue, and the students would supply entries about individual objects. Fliegel would visit the seminar every few weeks to lecture on pieces from the late medieval collection and to discuss the process of organizing the show. In addition, he would introduce the class to members of the CMA’s exhibition design team. “All of this,” Fliegel says, “proved to be of great interest to the students, many of whom have curatorial aspirations.”
The show would be modest in size, gathering fewer than 20 objects in the CMA’s Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery. Those objects, however, would be of exceptional beauty and significance. In addition to selections from the CMA’s holdings, Fliegel secured important loans from other museums in the United States and Europe. To illustrate life at the French court at the time the fountain was commissioned, he borrowed an illuminated manuscript, the Grandes Chroniques de France, from the National Library of France. To indicate how far the art of enameling had advanced in the early 14th century, he obtained an elaborate votive shrine from the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. And for an example of fountain imagery in late medieval painting, he secured a masterpiece that had never been exhibited in the United States: Jan van Eyck’s Madonna at the Fountain, from Belgium’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts. These were among the works that Gertsman’s students wrote about for their seminar.
During the course of their research, three of the students made Mellon-funded excursions to American museums lending objects to the show. Caya, for instance, flew to New York to visit the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to medieval art and architecture. The Cloisters is home to one of the world’s most highly prized illuminated manuscripts: a book of hours, or prayer book, commissioned by King Charles IV of France for his third wife, Jeanne d’Évreux. On many of its pages, scenes are enclosed in architectural frames similar to the microarchitecture of the table fountain. Caya spent her day at the Cloisters poring over a curatorial file that included everything the Met had ever published about the book. “It was my first official research trip,” she says.
All of the students delved into the immense body of scholarship surrounding their objects and did voluminous research on related topics as well. In a conventional graduate course, they would have gone on to write 25-page papers tailored to an academic audience. But the collections seminar required a very different product: catalogue entries no more than 1,000 words long, and wall labels limited to 250 words. Moreover, as Gertsman explained in her syllabus, these texts could not be “too technical, theoretical, or laced with art historical jargon.”
“The challenge became distilling as much information as possible into a very brief text,” says Dominique DeLuca, a doctoral student who, like Caya, is an aspiring medievalist. “How do you convey all that you need to convey? You don’t want to dumb it down, because that’s not fair to the museum visitor. Instead, you want to be clear about what are sometimes complicated issues—things that people don’t necessarily have a background in. You need to cover the basics and convey something new.”
The collections seminar was also distinctive in another respect, says Caya, who received her master’s degree in 2016 and has just finished her first year in CWRU’s doctoral program. “Because we were working on an exhibition where everything needed to be cohesive and interlocked, we were a lot more aware of one another’s projects than in a typical graduate seminar. You knew that whatever you wrote had to go well with what everyone else was writing for the catalogue.” Accordingly, the students read each other’s drafts and exchanged suggestions before receiving feedback from Gertsman.
Her comments, they say, were extensive and rigorous—and not only because their work was going to appear in a museum publication and on the walls of the CMA. Since joining the faculty in 2010, Gertsman has won recognition as a teacher who “challenges and pushes her students forward so that they do not settle for mediocrity, but strive for something better.” So wrote a student who nominated her for a John S. Diekhoff Award for Distinguished Graduate Student Teaching, which she received in 2015.
“Elina expects you to know your stuff,” Caya says. “And the fact that she has really high standards, both for your participation in class discussions and for your writing, makes you work that much harder.”
“She’s a fastidious writer and editor, but she has this sense of enjoyment of medieval art,” DeLuca adds. “She just loves everything about it, and loves teaching it.”
Her students share that sense of enjoyment, and they say that Fliegel contributed to it as well. One afternoon, for instance, he invited the class to a study room in the medieval department where he had set out several books of hours from the collection.
“He told us how to handle them—to be careful where you’re touching the page and how you’re holding the spine—to make sure they weren’t getting damaged,” Caya recalls. She also learned that handling the books with her bare hands was preferable to wearing gloves: “You’re less likely to accidentally tear a page, because you have more tactile contact with it.” When the seminar ran over its allotted time, Fliegel was apologetic, but the students didn’t mind. “I think we would all have stayed there for hours,” Caya says.
“I remember one of the books had been used so much by someone that their thumbprints had been pressed on the pages,” DeLuca says. “I still remember holding this book and feeling my thumbs go into the indentation where someone had been holding the book while praying hundreds of years ago. That was a special moment.”
Catherine Scallen notes that there are more collections seminars on the way. For example, Andrea Wolk Rager, the Jesse Hauk Shera Assistant Professor (and winner of a 2016 Diekhoff teaching award), is currently developing a course on the relationship between art and imperialism, with a focus on the French and British empires. In selecting objects for study, Wolk Rager is ranging broadly across the museum’s holdings in painting and sculpture, decorative arts, photography and works on paper from Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia. She is thinking of having her students write and record brief discussions of the objects, emphasizing the imperial context of their production or dissemination. Visitors would potentially listen to the discussions on an app called ArtsLens as they tour the galleries.
Whereas collections seminars are one-time offerings, other new courses developed with Mellon support have become part of the doctoral program’s regular curriculum. A class on the physical examination of art, taught by conservator and Adjunct Associate Professor Heather Galloway, is now required of all doctoral students. Assistant Professors Erin Benay and Noelle Giuffrida have each designed a course on the history of art collecting. And courses on painting in different parts of the world have been developed by two members of the CMA’s curatorial staff: Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, the George P. Bickford Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art and interim curator of Islamic art, and Cory Korkow, associate curator of European art.
The latest addition to the curriculum is a course that Gertsman and Quintanilla will co-teach this fall, exploring monumental sculpture and architecture across the medieval world. The class will study relevant objects now housed at the CMA, including votive statues in bronze or stone, bells and incense burners, manuscript pages and ritual garments.
“The Mellon grant is allowing me to design new courses that I would not have even considered teaching before,” Gertsman notes. Without this support, she adds, “such close collaboration with Stephen would likely have been impossible, and so would co-teaching with Sonya.”
At some point, Gertsman hopes to lead another collections seminar. “I would love to do something global, cross-cultural,” she says—something, in fact, like the upcoming course on medieval monuments. She can already imagine the resulting exhibition. “It would be magnificent,” she declares. “We wouldn’t even need loans. Our marvelous collections would be sufficient in and of themselves.”
Visit http://tinyurl.com/artscicma to read about a collaboration between Assistant Professor Andrea Wolk Rager and Barbara Tannenbaum, curator of photography at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
ART AND STORIES
The Cleveland table fountain exhibition isn’t the only major CMA project in which doctoral student Dominique DeLuca has participated. She also assisted curator Sonya Rhie Quintanilla in producing the show and catalogue Art and Stories from Mughal India, part of the museum’s centennial celebration in 2016. Her contribution was so significant that Quintanilla included her name on the catalogue’s title page.
The two first met in the fall of 2014, when DeLuca took a course on Indian painting that Quintanilla developed with Mellon Foundation support. At the time, the CMA had recently acquired a magnificent trove of paintings, the Catherine Glynn Benkaim and Ralph Benkaim Collection, created by artists serving imperial rulers in early modern India. Quintanilla planned to organize an exhibition featuring many of these works, and she invited her students to research earlier presentations of Mughal art by European and American museums.
“It was a chance to think critically about how to do something new and exciting with material that has been around in the West for a long time but is still rather unfamiliar to most audiences,” Quintanilla explains.
As the course was ending, Quintanilla mentioned that she was looking for an intern to help with the project, and DeLuca seized the chance. Neither of them anticipated how varied her duties would be. DeLuca assisted the scholars who were writing essays for the catalogue, arranging for them to study the paintings when they visited the museum and checking sources in the CMA’s Ingalls Library and Museum Archives. She entered new translations of inscriptions and other texts into a museum database. After receiving training in paper-handling techniques, she spent hours in a conservation lab, measuring each painting and recording its dimensions. Then she compiled the extensive portion of the catalogue that presents all 95 works from the Benkaim Collection.
One room in the exhibition displayed court artists’ illustrations of a biography of Jesus, composed in Persian by a missionary priest in the early 1600s; DeLuca wrote the wall labels for these paintings. Finally, she helped prepare mini-lectures and a glossary of terms for an app called CMA Mughal that is still available for download on Apple devices.
In the newly redesigned art history program, all doctoral students are guaranteed a museum internship. But DeLuca’s position with Quintanilla was something extra—a volunteer assignment she undertook before beginning her promised internship in the medieval department. “I really enjoyed having Sonya as a teacher,” DeLuca says, “so I thought being able to work with her would be a huge privilege and a great opportunity. And it was.”
One evening last fall, a group of visitors to the Cleveland Museum of Art toured an exhibition of rarely displayed prints and drawings produced in 18th-century France. They were lucky enough to have the show’s curator as their guide.
James Wehn spoke with deep familiarity about the works on view, nearly all of which belonged to the museum’s permanent collection. Walking among portraits, landscapes and still lifes, scenes from classical mythology and depictions of lovers’ travails, he pointed out ingenious subtleties that the visitors might otherwise have missed. He described technological advances that made printmaking a rival to painting, calling attention to images as delicately tinted as watercolors. He explained how an art form that enjoyed the patronage of the upper classes responded to the social changes unleashed by the French Revolution.
If Wehn hadn’t mentioned it at the start of the tour, no one would have guessed that he was a graduate student from Case Western Reserve and not a formal member of the museum’s curatorial staff. In two respects, he has benefited from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s support for the doctoral program in art history. When he was admitted in 2013, he was among the first recipients of a Mellon fellowship designed to attract outstanding candidates and enable them to earn their degrees in five years. (The norm in most art history programs is eight to 11 years.) In addition, he has worked half-time since 2015 in the museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings—first as an intern, and then as an Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Curatorial Fellow.
Wehn got to know the department’s curator, Jane Glaubinger (GRS ’73, ’80), soon after he started at CWRU. He remembers chatting with her about doing an exhibition once he became an intern, but he didn’t have a theme or period in mind. Then, while he was taking a seminar on the physical examination of works of art, he wrote a research paper about a color print by Jean François Janinet (1752–1814): an evocation of spring with a frame-like border of applied gold leaf. The project got him thinking about organizing a show of French works on paper from the 1700s.
Glaubinger was delighted with the idea. It had been years since the CMA had devoted an exhibition to such works, and visitors had never seen several recent acquisitions. With Glaubinger’s help, Wehn wrote a proposal and won the museum’s approval. Then he arranged an intensive reading course on 18th-century printmaking with Catherine Scallen, his advisor and chair of Case Western Reserve’s Department of Art History and Art. “It gave me the opportunity to research many of the works that would potentially be included in the exhibition and to become familiar with the issues and history related to that period,” he explains.
By fall 2015, Wehn had assumed his duties as an intern and was ready to make selections for the show. He and Glaubinger would meet in a study room at the museum, lay out works he was considering and talk through the pros and cons of possible groupings. Naturally, he was interested in her opinion: Glaubinger was about to retire after four decades at the CMA, and he valued her experience and connoisseurship. But although she offered guidance, she left the final choices up to him. “You have to decide,” she said. “You know why? Because it’s hard, and you need to learn how to do it.”
Early in the process, Wehn was tempted to include works of art historical interest even if they weren’t of the highest quality. But then he visited an exhibition titled Imagining the Garden, which opened at the CMA in December 2015. Organized by drawings curator Heather Lemonedes (who has since become the museum’s chief curator), the show highlighted changes in how artists over the centuries have thought about gardens and depicted them. Wehn found that, in addition to being informative, the exhibition presented the viewer with one dazzling object after another. “I saw that show, and it changed my approach when I went back into the study room,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I need to pick exquisite things.’”
As his project developed, Wehn collaborated with professionals throughout the museum. He conferred with the CMA’s exhibition design team and submitted drafts of his wall labels to the interpretation and editorial staff. He also met with curators in other departments, who lent him pieces of decorative art—an elaborate silver tureen, a wax relief on slate, even an 18th-century firearm—to complement works in the show.
Elegance and Intrigue: French Society in 18th-Century Prints and Drawings was on view from July to November 2016. To Wehn, who hopes to become a prints and drawings curator one day, the exhibition demonstrated one of the doctoral program’s great strengths: its ability to engage students in the work of a major art museum, enriching their education while benefiting the public that the CMA serves.
During the past three years, Allison Slenker (CWR ’16, GRS ’17) has helped prepare hundreds of works on paper for exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The first time she slipped a drawing into an acid-free mat, or enclosed a print in a custom frame, she felt some trepidation. Here she was, an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve, handling irreplaceable pieces of art from the museum’s collections. But she also knew that she had been granted an extraordinary opportunity.
Slenker hopes to pursue a career in art conservation, a field that integrates two of her longtime interests: science and the visual arts. In fall 2014, as a third-year student majoring in chemistry and art history, she applied to be a volunteer in the museum’s conservation department. She had no prior experience—normally a prerequisite even for a volunteer position. But because she had taken studio art classes most of her life, she had acquired the hand skills a conservator needs. Stephen Fixx, the CMA’s paper conservation technician, welcomed her into his lab.
“Initially, it was a lot of observation, with Steve talking to me about what he was doing and why he was doing it,” Slenker recalls. “Slowly but surely, he helped me feel comfortable in the handling of artworks.” Within a year, she had made herself so useful that the conservation department offered her an internship.
Beyond the community of museum professionals, conservators are best known for restoring damaged masterpieces. But as Slenker points out, conservators also protect and care for art so that it doesn’t suffer damage in the first place. “A lot of conservation is preventative rather than treatment-based,” she explains. “It’s a lot of dusting, a lot of rehousing materials. It’s general day-to-day maintenance that ensures that these objects will be there for posterity.”
During her time at the CMA, Slenker has prepared works for display both in the permanent galleries and in seven special exhibitions. The largest of these shows, Art and Stories from Mughal India, featured 100 paintings on paper—brilliantly colored, minutely detailed and exceedingly fragile—dating as far back as the 16th century. Many were originally bound in albums and had never been on public view. Slenker knew that if she didn’t keep them as flat as possible, areas of pigment might crackle or pop off.
She carried out her task with somewhat exotic materials. Early in the matting process, she would brush wheat-starch paste onto a small tab of Japanese paper known as a “hinge.” Then she’d attach one end to the back of a painting, usually at the top, and fasten the other end to the mat board. Depending on the size and the type of paper, she sometimes added hinges elsewhere to decrease fluctuations in the page and anchor it in place.
Visitors to the Mughal exhibition saw each painting through a window-like opening in a mat’s front panel. Typically, the painting would be slightly larger than the window, so its borders were hidden from view. But the show’s curator, Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, wanted certain pages to be fully visible. In those cases, Slenker made the window somewhat larger than the painting, allowing the art to “float” within its frame.
A subset of works in the show—25 double-sided paintings—required particular care. While matting them, Slenker had to give more thought than usual to positioning the hinges. The frames were constructed so that she could install plexiglas on both sides. For the exhibition, these paintings were set on pedestals in the midst of the galleries so that visitors could walk around them.
As she addressed the challenges raised by each type of mounting, Slenker worked alongside Fixx at a high, white-topped table. “Anytime there was a decision to be made, he and I discussed it first,” she says. “There is a considerable amount of problem solving that goes on in the lab.”
In addition to assisting in the paper preparation lab, Slenker has been active elsewhere in the conservation department. Last October, she was up on a scaffold helping to clean the bronze cast of Rodin’s Thinker at the museum’s entrance. In the CMA’s object conservation lab, headed by associate curator Colleen Snyder, she has assessed the condition of works the museum is in the process of acquiring and helped prepare a new rotation of works in the Japanese galleries.
While completing a master’s degree in art history this past year, Slenker wrote her qualifying paper about the materials and techniques used to create Longquan ware, a type of green-glazed Chinese pottery. For a follow-up project, she intends to perform conservation treatment on a 14th-century Longquan vase in the CMA’s collection, replacing old, discolored repairs and toning the new fills to match the rest of the vase’s surface. “All of the research I have done on these wares and their history will inform how I treat the object,” she says.
Slenker plans to stay on at the museum for now and apply to graduate programs in art conservation this fall. Such programs are rare and highly selective, but she hopes that her experience in the CMA’s labs will improve her chances and help open the way to her chosen career.