In their January/February 2021 cover story, Cornell Alumni Magazine highlights the Johnson’s permanent collection and architecture while we remain closed to the public.

Visit their website for the complete feature; excerpts from their conversation with Jessica Levin Martinez, the Richard J. Schwartz Director, are below.

After Jessica Martinez took the reins at the Johnson Museum in July 2019, she had just one full semester of “normal” life on the Hill before the COVID lockdown struck in the middle of spring 2020—upending operations for one of Cornell’s premier venues for public outreach and cultural enrichment. Just the fourth director in the Museum’s history, Martinez spent much of her career at Harvard, where she earned an undergraduate degree in fine arts (from Radcliffe) and a doctorate in the history of art and architecture; prior to coming to Cornell, she led the Division of Academic and Public Programs at the Harvard Art Museums. Her experience also includes serving as an educator and administrator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., and investigating the provenance of Nazi-looted artworks in Eastern Europe.

Does the world need art more than ever right now?
It’s such a beautiful question, because it suggests just what we know: that art can bring us out of our current situation and into the world of the imaginary, but it can also help us wrestle with the very real problems of today. We must listen to artists now; they are not only chroniclers of our times, they help us imagine new futures. Art asks us tough questions. What is the nature of sickness? How do we move through political conflict? How do we develop empathy in ourselves and in others? How do we form community? A museum is a place to think of these big questions, whether you’re there looking at the original work or at home on your computer. It should be a place of joy and delight, but also one of real rigor.

How did the Johnson facilitate learning amid last fall’s COVID restrictions?
It was important for the Museum to be part of the campus’s efforts to de-densify. We had music students rehearsing on our Mallin Sculpture Court, and the AAP architecture reviews used some of our larger galleries. Every week, we installed a new show of student art, a first for the Johnson; it was fantastic, because the students collaborated with our staff to install their work professionally. Faculty in a long list of fields mined our collection to select works that advance the arguments in their classes, and we installed them in our new curricular gallery. Last fall, fifty courses came to the Museum and nearly 800 students learned with and through our collection. Even though you’re in Ithaca, the Museum takes you to every corner of the globe.

Can you give an example of an artwork that faculty incorporated into their lessons?
There’s a painting by David Bailly that’s really stunning, what’s known as a vanitas still life. It takes its name from a passage in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!”; its grouping of objects offers a cautionary message about the foolishness of spending time and money on worldly possessions. An Arts and Sciences course on European music from the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque focused on the painting’s lute, recorder, and cittern, considering how the temporary nature of music speaks to the brevity of life. A CALS course on the art of horticulture studied the red tulips in the work; they reference the Dutch trade and recall the fragility of life. And at the business school—this is my favorite—a class on luxury marketing discussed the work itself as a costly good and how the language of advertising takes its cues from still lifes of the so-called Golden Age.

How has the Johnson enriched online education for schoolchildren during COVID?
When we realized that [elementary] schools would not be able to visit in person, we wanted to create interactive sessions to complement what students were learning in class. Working closely with teachers, we created online programs where there is close looking, critical inquiry, and engagement with the world. For example, we’ve been working with a fabulous effigy jar from Costa Rica, in the form of a jaguar, that would have held something similar to hot cocoa. Not only do we share the great artistry of this stunning jar, we also talk about how it was made and encourage students to work with their caregivers to do a creative project at home—complete with a hot cocoa recipe.

What’s it like to run a major museum so far from an urban cultural center?
It’s really interesting. This is where our history comes into play, because even before the concrete was poured, Cornell built a reputation with the groundbreaking show Earth Art [in 1969]. This was the first North American exhibition dedicated to presenting works bound to their physical site. It was a high-profile, highly ambitious show, and the world came to Cornell. And we project ourselves into the world outside of Ithaca in many ways, including through traveling exhibitions and an international loan program; our Most Wanted Men No. 1, John M. by Andy Warhol was recently at the Tate Modern in London and is now at Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany. I know that some love the Johnson as a kind of best-kept secret, but I actually see the Museum as this big and muscular place that has a presence globally.

What have you hung on your own office wall?
I have one of the best offices in all of Cornell because I have a sweeping view of Cayuga Lake. Just above my desk is a wonderful painting by the Korean artist Kim Foon, Unihaha, from 1964. It was a gift to the Museum from Professor Emeritus Roald Hoffmann in honor of Martie Young, a professor emeritus of art history who was also Cornell’s founding curator of Asian art. Professor Hoffmann won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and it’s a daily reminder of the possibilities for bridging art and science at the Johnson, especially through conservation and technical analysis. And for me, the brushstrokes recall the building’s poured concrete and our lovely Morgan [Japanese] Garden.

Once the pandemic lockdown ends, what new exhibits are on tap?
As soon as it’s safe, likely next fall, we’re going to be mounting a major exhibition entitled Art and the Global Climate Struggle that considers indigenous ecology and contemporary art. It’s in conjunction with a CALS initiative, an international conference called Transdisciplinary Challenge: The Role of Indigenous Knowledge in Adapting to Climate Change.

What do you most look forward to when life goes back to normal?
We love to bring people together—to gather faculty, students, visiting scholars, alumni, artists, neighbors, friends, and tourists—because to really interrogate a work of art requires multiple points of view. I miss that in-person engagement so dearly. I think the best way to get to know somebody is to look at great works of art together.