At Zimmerli, the Secret is Out

The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick is one of the largest university art museums in the country.

Photo by Don Hamerman.

At the corner of Hamilton and George streets in New Brunswick, the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University sat patiently for years—hiding in plain sight as students and locals scurried past. It was a tough secret to keep. Spanning 70,000 square feet and holding more than 60,000 pieces in its permanent collection, the Zimmerli is one of the largest university art museums in the country.

“I suspect many people have graduated from Rutgers in the past not knowing [about the Zimmerli],” says Barry Qualls, vice president for undergraduate education at Rutgers. “I don’t think you could miss its presence now.”

The museum was founded in 1966 as the Rutgers University Art Gallery. In the 1980s, on the coattails of New Brunswick’s downtown revitalization project, the museum underwent a major expansion funded in part by Rutgers graduate Ralph Voorhees and his late brother Alan, for whose mother the museum was renamed. But in Qualls’s opinion, it wasn’t until two years ago, when Suzanne Delehanty became director, that the museum began getting the attention it deserves.
“The Zimmerli has been transformed by Suzanne,” Qualls says.

This past April, Delehanty and staff reinstalled the Zimmerli’s internationally known European galleries. “We have lots of great works,” says Delehanty, citing the museum’s strong holdings in Russian and Soviet Nonconformist art, French 19th-century art and early 20th-century and contemporary prints.

Qualls, also a professor of English, is most impressed with the way Delehanty has made the museum a magnet for undergraduate events. Each semester, Delehanty works with faculty to find new ways to incorporate the museum’s collections into curricula across all disciplines. For this month’s opening day of “Two Venetian Masters: Canaletto and Domenico Tiepolo Etchings,” theater majors from Rutgers will perform excerpts of The Merchant of Venice at the Zimmerli. And in conjunction with this month’s launch of “Fluxus at Rutgers,” an exhibition on the art movement founded at Rutgers in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Delehanty has secured Fluxus artist and Rutgers-grad Larry Miller to guest-lecture in one of the Byrne First-Year Seminars.

“One of the things Suzanne has done so brilliantly is come up with a remarkable number of programs to bring undergrads into the museum,” says Qualls.

The Zimmerli offers honors program classes and underwrites a fellowship program for four to five graduate students. Beginning spring of 2012, it will also offer for-credit internships. Yet Delehanty’s vision for the museum is not limited to the Rutgers community.

“From the very beginning, since Rutgers is a public university, our mission has been to serve not only the academic community, but the broad public,” Delehanty says.

To achieve this, the Zimmerli’s Education Department implements both in-house and outreach programs for pre-schoolers to senior citizens in arts education, art history, literature, dance and music. The Zimmerli also hosts the “Art After Hours” series on the first Wednesday of each month, featuring lectures, music and dance performances, tours, poetry slams and films complementing the museum’s exhibitions. In addition, on the first Sunday of each month, the museum opens its doors free to the public.

“Our attendance last year was the highest in the Zimmerli history,” Delehanty says. “We want to not have ourselves be the best-kept secret in New Jersey.”

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