A gala evening

Princeton University Art Museum holds its annual February event

By Philip Sean Curran, Packet Media Group
   The Princeton University Art Museum, it is said, owns the first Saturday of February on the social calendar.
   That held true again last weekend with a record turnout for the museum’s annual gala, a fundraiser that supports educational programs and special exhibitions.
   The night began with patrons, representing the well heeled and the well dressed, mingling in the museum for a two-hour cocktail reception that was sold out with 500 people expected. It was a black tie and formal attire kind of evening, as the crowd sipped wine and looked at art, including one of the center pieces of the collection: Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge.”
   Some of the notables in attendance included Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber in orange bow tie, and his wife, Lori Martin, U.S. Rep. Rush Holt and Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert and her husband Ken Norman.
   ”It’s a real town and gown event,” said Pamela Kogen Morandi, a co-chairwoman of the gala along with Jill Mitchell. “It really draws from not only the university but the community.”
   Afterward, most of the patrons walked to the nearby Prospect House on campus for dinner, also sold out, with 378 people expected. A committee of about 20 people helped pull everything together. “Doing an event like this is very much dependent on our volunteers,” said James C. Steward, the museum director.
   The gala is a tradition going back for decades. Mr. Steward said he thought this year’s record attendance might, in part, be due to an improving economy that is making people feel “more easy about supporting events of this kind.”
   Mr. Steward, also a member of the university faculty, has been the director since 2009 — a tough time for institutions to raise money. Corporate donations were down. Giving was tight.
   ”And we definitely feel a different kind of readiness to support what we’re doing and to help make sure that we’re able to continue mounting the kinds of exhibitions we do and the community-based educational programs …,” he said.
   The museum, founded in 1882, is home to more than 92,000 pieces of art from around the world, including a piece of Egyptian sculpture that is 3,000 years old. Other notables in the collection are works by Vincent van Gogh and Charles Wilson Peale, who created the 1784 painting of George Washington at the battle of Princeton.
   David Tierno, chairman of the Friends of the Museum, said there are thousands of objects that are in storage because they cannot be displayed due to the physical constraint of the building.
   ”So we have lots of objects that we’d love to expose to the public and to our students, but we can’t do it because we’re limited in the amount of space we have,” he said.
   The museum, he continued, “probably in time” would need a bigger building. He said “probably in the next 10 years we’re going to have to think about that.” The museum gets about 140,000 visitors each year, up from around 90,000 to 95,000 before Mr. Steward took over.
   ”I think the programming has been a big part of it,” said Mr. Tierno in explaining why more people are coming. “The museum has always had a wonderful collection … but since James’ arrival, we’ve had a number of very, very creative and beautiful exhibitions both locally and internationally that we’ve brought here.”Mr. Steward said that one of the museum’s goals is to do a better job of getting word out that admission is free and that the museum is open to all.
   Former Princeton Mayor Phyllis Marchand, dressed in a red gown, threw compliments Mr. Steward’s way. “He has reached out to all different segments of our community to bring them into the museum with lots of fun activities and educational programs. I really say that the museum has changed its image in the community because of his leadership.”