Five Questions with the Syracuse University Art Museum’s New Curator

person pulling artwork out of drawer
Written by Publishing Team

arts and culture

Someone pulling artwork from the tray

Melissa Yuen

Melissa Yuen was appointed curator at Syracuse University Museum of Art on December 1, 2021. She joined Syracuse from the Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and previously worked as a Curator at Stanford University’s Cantor Center for the Arts.

SU News sat down with her to learn more about her role and vision for future exhibitions at the Syracuse University Museum of Art.

  • 01

    What does a coordinator do, anyway?

    I think my job as a coordinator has two main components. With its roots in the Latin word Medicine, or for care, the coordinator has the primary task of caring for a group. For me, that means specifically taking an interest in the collection at Syracuse University Museum of Art by researching and learning as much as possible about each of our 45,000 artworks.

    Another part of being interested in the collection is thinking about how we can expand our holdings in ways that reflect the diversity of today’s art world and the wide range of issues artists deal with in their work.

    The second part of my role is organizing exhibitions to share our collection with our community. I see this part of my job as a form of visual storytelling, and I find it infinitely challenging on an intellectual (and even fun!) level to figure out how to bring different works together around a topic or issue and encourage the campus community to engage with it.

  • 02

    Is the role of curator in a university art museum different from that of a private, non-profit museum?

    Yes! The primary audience at the University’s Museum of Art are university students, faculty, and staff. As we seek to engage with civil society in Syracuse and the broader Central New York area, we are always thinking about how to engage the campus community during their time here at SU through our collections and exhibits. In doing so, we are working to position the Museum as a site for research, where there are opportunities for everyone to use our holdings, whether displayed in galleries or in our storage vaults, to consider different issues through the visual medium of art.

  • 03

    What drew you to the role in Syracuse?

    The museum’s focus has been primarily on diversity, equity, and inclusion through its exhibitions and recent acquisitions, along with its focus on connecting with the Syracuse curriculum and creating a place that can bring students together. I have personally experienced how such experiences can change a student’s time at university.

    My work with the Museum of Art at my university when I was an undergraduate literally changed my life – I started college with a plan to become a pharmacist, but after taking a series of art history classes she met at the Museum of Art and used her collection, working as a curator at an art museum!

    I also welcome the opportunity to work alongside the museum’s talented staff and learn about the collection – we have so many works that it’s been fun discovering what we have in our collections and thinking about the different ways we can share what we have with the vibrant campus community. Finally, I’m really excited to develop collaborations with students and faculty so that we can invite different perspectives to our collection and exhibitions.

  • 04

    Are there opportunities for students to do research or projects with the Museum?

    definitely! We have 45,000 items in our collection, and we are always striving to learn more about each of the businesses we are interested in. We welcome students interested in doing preliminary research – with both art objects and archival materials – to help us not only learn more about objects but also help us think about how we can present these works to our audience. What stories can we tell? And just as importantly, what stories are not being represented and how do we address this?

  • 05

    As a society, we are faced with a lot of difficult issues. Why is art important? How can art guide our thinking about current issues?

    I think art has this wonderful ability to inspire conversations that can bring together different perspectives. We live in such a visual world – images welcome us at every turn – and I think everyone can respond to what we see: how does a painting make you feel? What does this artwork remind you of? Are there details that you are particularly drawn to?

    These questions and responses are important because we can use them first to build trust and community within the group, which is an important basic to follow before delving into the difficult issues that many artists have dealt with. In other words, art can provide many different entry points to begin understanding and discussing these difficult issues.

  • 06

    What do you think of some of the highlights of the Syracuse University Museum of Art collection?

    The museum has a rich collection – it is global in scope and spans over 5,500 years of history. Many of our murals and sculptures can be seen around the campus, including Ben Shahn’s “Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti” mural on HBC’s east wall, Malvina Hoffman’s “Elemental Man” in the Falk College courtyard, and The Six Curved Walls of Sol LeWitt” on a grassy hillside outside Krause College. Inside the museum in the Shaffer Art Building and thanks to the collecting efforts of former directors and curators, we have great depth in prints, particularly those made in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some of the artists who have been represented Their outputs fully printed in our holdings are Carl Schrag, Richard Florsheim, and Seong Moi.

    We also have artwork by important American and European artists, such as Anna Huntington, Reginald Marsh, Martin Wong, William Adolphe Bouguereau, and Hasinth Rigaud. One of the highlights of our painting collection is Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s “Forbidden Fruit,” which shows a young boy staring over the edge of a table at a tower of watermelon slices stacked precariously on top of one another with a table leg mysteriously set next to it. The lighter colors used by the Japanese-born painter also add to the eccentricity of the work, as shades of lavender, yellow, and pink mark the room’s walls and floors. In addition to this painting, we are also fortunate to have two preparatory drawings by the artist in our collection, so that these three works, taken together, can allow us to better understand the creative process of Kuniyoshi.

    Favorite character is “Untitled” by Helen Frankenthal. It’s a horizontal palette featuring various shades of greens and peach, with a cool tactile section of white in the middle. I was very surprised when I first saw the painting in person because Frankenthaler included some bright pigment in her drawings, so parts of the surface shimmered in the light!

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