Reframing the Canvas

Zebra, a 1763 painting by George Stubbs, serves as the mascot of the Yale Center for British Art on shirts, mugs, and bumper stickers. But to Linda Friedlaender, Senior Curator of Education, the Stubbs painting also embodies the YCBA’s recent shift toward a more critical perspective. “Before, we would talk about the story of how Queen Charlotte received the zebra from explorers in Africa, and what a gifted painter Stubbs was, and we’d talk about the painterly qualities of the work,” she explained. “But really, the zebra functions as a symbol of the imperial project of Britain, and hearing that [from one of the graduate students] gave me the chance to step back and consider all the paintings [in the collection] from that lens.”

In a seminar room off the museum’s lobby, Friedlander, who has worked at the YCBA since its opening in 1977, passes around copies of a news article to twenty-one undergraduates. These are the YCBA Student Guides, a group of students selected to design tours and lead the public through the Center’s three-story collection. The article is about Therese Dreaming, a painting that depicts an adolescent girl with legs spread apart and underwear revealed, housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “There’s a petition going around to either remove or further contextualize this painting by Balthus,” she says, holding up a print-out of the painting. “So what do you do? Let’s start there.”

That question—critical and topical—is typical of the discussions at weekly Student Guide classes. The YCBA’s primary benefactor, Paul Mellon, envisioned the Center as a repository of “beautiful works of art for Yale students” when he presented his collection to the University in 1966. But as the analytical stance on “Britishness” has shifted focus toward the country’s imperial legacy, the Center has begun to rethink its engagement with the term. As part of that process, the YCBA’s Education Department has altered the Student Guide program to reflect a newly critical attitude toward Britain’s representation, both in the artwork and in the world at large.

On a recent January afternoon, Curator of Education and Academic Outreach Jennifer Reynolds-Kaye began another class with a presentation on “The British Afterlives of Pre-Columbian Art.” Framing the art of the pre-colonial Americas through a British lens is unorthodox, but for Reynolds-Kaye, that’s the point. The usual confines of the imagined British empire don’t cut it here—British imperialism cleaves a wide fissure through world history, and, under the tutelage of the Education Department, the Guides are learning how to tell museum visitors about it.

The museum’s critical shift, Friedlaender thinks, was spurred by the wave of political activism that rocked American college campuses, including Yale, in 2015. Likening it to the current #MeToo movement, Friedlaender believes that “2015 was a time when students of color at Yale and around the country started breaking the silence around [colleges’] treatment of minority students.” Shortly thereafter, in early 2016, the YCBA closed to the public for extended building conservation. The closure period provided the staff with an opportunity to reevaluate the museum’s mission and vision with respect to the concerns raised by the protests. In particular, the YCBA began to consider ways in which its collection could serve as a means of engaging with the legacies of slavery and imperialism, not only for students, but for members of the New Haven community. Friedlaender said that programming involving New Haven residents, local schools, and professionals from other museums has transformed the timbre of the YCBA and diversified the demographics of the museum’s visitors.

With these new goals in mind, the museum reorganized its permanent collection for its 2016 reopening under the dictum “Britain in the World.” “It’s no longer just about British culture and history, stuck on a small island sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea,” said Student Guide Jordan Schmolka, who has been in the program since 2016. “The YCBA is in the process of looking outward, redefining its mission and using its collection to address how Britain’s history has affected those beyond its borders.” To prompt this kind of thinking in the museum’s visitors, Schmolka and other Guides discuss why figures are depicted in certain positions or with particular lighting effects and how power is asserted through a work’s composition.

The art can be jarring, Friedlaender pointed out while describing a prominent eighteenth-century portrait of Elihu Yale. He sits at the center of the canvas, surrounded by other prominent men. At the right bottom corner, a Black slave waits, looking at his master. “That Black servant in the corner—he’s finely dressed, but there’s a collar and a padlock around his neck,” she observes. “He would have been locked up at night.” Focusing on formal details—like the appearance of the padlock as a representation of chattel bondage—helps students consider imperialism, slavery, and race, while “show[ing] how Britain’s imperialist history pervades absolutely everything in the museum,” Schmolka says. Her own tour, “Paint It Black: A History of the Color,” focuses on the history of black pigmentation in the collection, and discusses the ways Blackness has been constructed in lockstep with racial alterity.

While Schmolka and Friedlaender agree that the collection serves as a nexus for engaging with imperial legacy, they also emphasize the complementary relevance of recent programming. Schmolka and Sonia Gadre, another Student Guide, noted the “Things of Beauty Growing” exhibition that closed last December, which explored how vessel traditions from the British Isles, China, and Korea came together in novel ways to birth contemporary British pottery.

Students have been crucial in transforming the museum’s approach to race and representation. Since 2014, the Guides have had a hand in shaping the YCBA’s collection by selecting a work on paper for acquisition through the John O’Brien Fund each year. Both initiatives are shifting attention from the dazzling metropolitan centers of the former British Empire to the margins, with an emphasis on the traces of colonial rule. To Gadre, the Student Guides are challenging the notion that the YCBA is antiquated and pretentious. “We are young and we are here to help you through the museum’s resources,” she said. “That in itself seems to turn the stereotype of stuffy old British art on its head.”

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