Tompkins Weekly

50 years of I. M. Pei’s window to the world

Museum Art Wall
Visitors of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum can view a wall sized art collection, articles on I. M. Pei, and feature articles from local to national magazines on display in the anniversary exhibit on the first floor. Photo courtesy of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum..

From the beginning, Cornell University cofounder Andrew Dickson White wanted to create “an educational environment at Cornell that would inspire as well as instruct.” According to the 1998 edition of “Handbook of the Collection: Herbert F. Johnson Museum,” White brought “a collection of plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture to familiarize students with the importance of classical art and enhanced the campus grounds with sculpture, paintings, and memorial plaques. He felt “art should serve a moral purpose” and hoped to “inspire students to high purpose and to develop in them an appreciation of beauty to ‘leaven the lump.”‘”

By Mikayla “Mack” Rovenolt

White’s dream of the university’s very own art museum was unfortunately not realized in his lifetime. However, Cornell’s campus did host traveling art exhibits in the 1920s and some of White’s casts were kept in a museum like manner, although nothing was official.

It was not until 1953 that an official art museum was created at Cornell under University President Deane Malott, with funds donated by Ernest I. White, a nephew of Andrew Dickson White. This museum was created in part of White’s home and officially opened Nov. 22, 1953.

However, by the 1960s, the museum was experiencing facility difficulties including space for all the collections, storage, security issues, and the upkeep of an aging building. Cornell needed a new facility to house the art collections and to serve the students and community.

Three major events in the museum’s history occurred in the mid 1960s: Herbert E  Johnson, Class of 1922, agreed to fund the construction of the new museum building and Thomas W. Leavitt was appointed director of  the Museum. Perhaps most famously, I. M. Pei was selected as the architect for the new structure, which officially opened to the public in 1973. 

“A work of art in itself, the Museum was planned from its inception to be open free of charge to all, with a vision of developing a global collection of artworks representing nearly all cultures  across thousands of years of human achievement,” says the 2018 edition of the Handbook.

50 years later, the Herbert F. Johnson museum is still free of charge and open to everyone, not just students or Ithacans. Its structure is a piece of art in and of itself and it serves as an educational community location for all. 

Grades K through 12 and all they way through graduate and Ph. D. programs enjoy classes and educational tours of the museum. Visitors can view the entire city and surrounding areas from the outdoor art display in a beautiful 360 degree view, which also makes it a prime place to admire Ithaca and Cornell, not just the museum itself. This integration of open spaces for connecting with nature is an aspect that museum director Jessica Martinez loves about the museum.

“To be at this moment of celebration looking not only at five decades of collecting art but also thinking about what the future might hold for the Johnson Museum. We’re celebrating that with our anniversary exhibit which features artwork from artists that were working around the same time the museum was dedicated in 1973,” Martinez said. “We’re really using this time to celebrate our past and to look to the future and one of the ways we’re doing this is we’re having a big welcoming open house event on September 23.” 

In addition to the anniversary exhibit, there are new installations currently on display, with others in the works for August. These exhibits include Storywork: The prints of Marie Watt which is on display until July 30, Gifts of Modern Art from David M. Solinger, Class of 1926, Leo Villareal: Cosmos, and an outdoor sculpture collection. While Storywork is temporary, the latter three are ongoing displays. 

The upcoming temporary displays include Nydia Blas: Love, You Came from Greatness from Aug. 12 to Jan. 7, Celia Vasquez Yui: The Council of the Mother Spirits of the Animals from Aug. 26 to Dec. 10, and Coco Fusco: Your Eyes Will Be an Empty Word from Sept. 9 to Jan. 7.

The anniversary display is also one of the ongoing exhibits that, in addition to the period art pieces, includes parts of the Johnson Museum’s history. Visitors are encouraged to view the display at any time, and especially at the official celebration in September. While the official details of the event have not been finalized, Martinez shared that this event is free and will feature live music, sweet treats, art-making, and fun for visitors of all ages and interests. It will be held from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m..

“We just hope everybody can come and celebrate together the great moments from our past; the towering architecture, buildings and history, but also all that our community campus makes here,” Martinez said. “We want to bring art and people together here at the museum and have successfully been doing just that for 50 years. I hope that it can continue and maybe the celebration will attract new visitors as well. We’re very excited to celebrate our past and present and to plan for more wonderful things in the future.” 

Hours, directions, and parking information for the museum can be found on their website at As the official celebration draws nearer, interested individuals are encouraged to keep an eye on the website for the release of the finalized event details. 

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