WELLESLEY — Although Wellesley College’s Davis Museum and Cultural Center opened in 1993, the school had been collecting art since its founding, in 1875. Only a decade later, it became one of the first colleges to teach art history. The courses put Wellesley’s budding collection to good use, taking the then-novel approach of incorporating actual works of art into the curriculum. This became known as “the Wellesley Method.” The collection now comprises nearly 13,000 objects, spanning 4,000 years and including works by Rembrandt, Monet, Cézanne, and de Kooning.
Earlier this month, the museum unveiled a rehanging of its permanent collection. On Nov. 12, Wellesley observes the occasion with “The Davis Reimagined,” a day of performances, talks, art making, and workshops.
The rehang was overseen by Davis director Lisa Fischman. The second reinstallation since the museum’s opening, it took three years of planning and doubled the number of items on display to more than 600.
“One of the things that’s surprising when you make the transition from being a curator to being a director is that you have less time to spend with the collection,” Fischman said recently. “But this project let us dive into the collection.”
Fischman’s fellow divers were Eve Straussman-Pflanzer and Claire Whitner. Straussman-Pflanzer now heads the European art department at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Whitner, who came to the Davis in 2014, succeeded her as the Davis’s assistant director of curatorial affairs and senior curator of collections.
Whitner, giving a tour with
Fischman, described how planning began. A list of every collection item that might be part of a permanent installation, minus works on paper, was assembled and printed out. “That was about 7,000 objects,” Whitner said, taking a deep breath.
“We forced ourselves to look at every single object on the list. That doesn’t sound like such a hard task. But we would go through these waves of exhilaration followed by feeling completely overwhelmed. How are two people going to be able to make sense of 7,000 objects that are encyclopedic in their nature?”
Whitner gave an example of how difficult that could be. “When you look at an object on your computer or on a checklist, everything’s the same size. Everything’s an inch tall. Then when a 10-foot sculpture comes out of storage, it . . . is . . . striking.”
Some challenges were logistical. A Davis treasure is its fifth-century “Antioch Mosaic.” Mosaics are made of stone, and this one weighs four tons. The plan was to move it from a fifth-level wall to the second-level floor. “Colossal,” Fischman called the undertaking. “Nerve-racking,” said Whitner.
The most obvious change is the doubling of objects on display. “You know those things you see in architectural magazines, design hacks for tiny apartments?” Fischman said. “Well, this is 60,000 square feet of exhibition space. So we don’t have a tiny apartment, but we decided to use it more cleverly and efficiently than we did before.”
They had two secret weapons. One was the collection itself. A surprising number of notable items proved to be very small, such as a selection of 19th-century African gold weights. The other secret weapon was interior walls, which the galleries had previously lacked. Working with the New York architecture firm of Rice+Lipka, Fischman and the Davis staff deployed the walls to increase exhibition space without breaking up the interior sightlines of Rafael Moneo’s design.
The aim was to maintain a balance between unexpected vistas and intimate spaces. One result is the visual chiming of two double portraits, Alice Neel’s “Wellesley Girls (Kiki Djos ’68 and Nancy Selvage ’67)” and Tim Okamura’s “Loading.”
The other big change is organizational. Previously, the galleries were arranged thematically. Now the arrangements are largely by chronology and culture. Largely, but not entirely. “There is something to be said for having the occasional audacious juxtaposition,” Fischman said. So green fabrics from various cultures share a display case. Another has diverse items that are blue and white (Chinese porcelain, Delft pottery, a Persian ewer).
Fischman pointed out that the reinstallation is flexible. Objects on the fifth level, which features contemporary art, will regularly change. Also, new gifts and purchases will need accommodating. But flexible isn’t the same as permanent. So how long before the next rehang?
“This is forever,” Whitner deadpanned. Fischman just laughed.
THE DAVIS REIMAGINED
At Davis Museum and Cultural Center, 106 Central St., Wellesley, Nov. 12, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. 718-283-2051, www.thedavis.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.