Like many museum visitors, I marvel at the way that works of art can simultaneously evoke strong emotions and prompt intellectual discussions. When I was a senior in high school, my history class took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and even though I hadn’t studied art or been to a lot of museums at that point, I remember being so struck by the vibrancy of Van Gogh’s Irises. I bought a poster reproduction of that painting, carried it with me to college that fall, and the image became my companion through many dorm rooms and apartments in the following years. More than a decade later, as a professor teaching art history for NYU in Paris, France, I found myself with a group of students outside of a mental hospital in Saint Remy de Provence. As Van Gogh aficionados know, this was where Van Gogh was undergoing treatment for mental illness when he painted Irises, and many other celebrated canvases. I spoke to my students about Van Gogh’s biography, Post-Impressionist art, and the histories of landscape and still-life paintings, but I could not teach or put into words the emotional resonance of Van Gogh’s painting.
My interest in museum work is driven by a fascination with objects, the impact they have on our lives, and the stories they can tell, as well as the opportunity to put works of art into active dialogue with our communities. We must ensure that all young people have the opportunity to interact with works of art, as I was lucky to do in high school—but it is also our responsibility to care for the collections in our museums, support contemporary artists, and develop programming relevant to our changing audiences. As a specialist in European art, my personal scholarly interests lie in the 19th century, and France and Britain specifically. I’m excited to work with my colleagues at the PMA to develop programs and exhibitions in this area, while also exploring broader connections to American and contemporary art.
In the coming years, museums will be tasked with looking deeply at their own collections, and their own histories, while developing new models of engaging with local, national, and global audiences. This work will be guided by an acknowledgement of the pervasive inequalities in our society, and the need for collective action to tackle systemic racism, the climate crisis, and other challenges, in partnership with our communities
Even in these extraordinary circumstances, I’ve been inspired by the interest and support of the PMA members, and the relationships we have built with our partners in Maine and beyond—and I so look forward to the day when we can all meet again in person! With our members, our communities, and great works of art, we can find ways to nourish our souls in these uncertain times, and begin laying the foundation for future collaboration.
— Shalini Le Gall
Chief Curator, Susan Donnell and Harry W. Konkel Curator of European Art, and Director of Academic Engagement