ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT

Will Coleman ‘03

Will Coleman
Will Coleman

I have been really looking forward to this interview as you and I are not only both St. Stephen's graduates but you were also one of my favorite teachers from my undergraduate experience studying Art History at WashU. The first question I always ask whoever I’m speaking with is, where are you from and what brought you to Rome?

And you were one of my favorite students! While Philadelphia is home, my family was based in metro Boston for my high school years at Buckingham Browne & Nichols, where St. Stephen's was one of the study abroad programs offered. I had the beginnings of an interest in art history already and that was one of the main reasons for the application. I felt ready for a change and had been tempted by the idea of a boarding environment previously. It was a chance to see what that feels like just for a semester.

 

Can you describe your experience at St. Stephen’s? What are some of your fondest memories of that time?

St. Stephen’s is really fresh in my mind because it permanently changed my life for the better, even though I was only lucky enough to be there for a semester. The place really makes a significant impact even in such a short time so I appreciate your including a semester student in this alumni series. An encounter with one particular St. Stephen's faculty member made me decide to devote my life to art history: Pamela Christy. I know that I am far from the only lifelong art historian who emerged from her classroom. There was another even just in my year: Iggy Cortez, now a professor at Vanderbilt. So, that was a very special environment. It goes without saying that learning about art history in the eternal city is an experience not soon forgotten. Seeing the Villa Borghese with Ms. Christy is highest in my mind: encountering Bernini's Apollo and Daphne with this charismatic educator leading us through it, helping us to see how Bernini made this challenging material soft and pliable and the miraculous way it was handled. I also recall the incredible transporting illusionistic ceiling of the Church of the Gesù and even just these seemingly minor, smaller churches around the corner from St. Stephen's had these remarkable masterpieces of Guido Reni and others. That experience went deep. More broadly, I remember walking all over that city, getting lost and getting found again, the great coffee that served as a most welcome performance-enhancing drug during a break in the SAT, winning (if you call it winning) “Most Hyper” in the yearbook, all these little tastes and smells and sounds of a semester that changed my life forever and really did make me feel ready for the leap into higher education and further study.

What came next for you after your experience in Rome?

 I went back to finish my senior year of high school at BB&N. By then I was already a convinced art historian and dedicated the senior project period to an independent study of the history of photography because of my training with Pamela Christy. And then off to undergrad declaring art history as my major the very first week of freshman year. I never looked back. I was angling from early on for work in the campus gallery and eventually convinced the college to let me do the first student-curated loan exhibition there, again, because of the deep influence of Pamela Christy and St. Stephen's, encountering the power of works of art in their original context. I only applied to colleges that offered the Italian language thinking that might become the direction because St. Stephen's had gone so deep but rather unexpectedly I transitioned to American art. The art of what is now the United States came to speak to me through the training I had received from Ms. Christy. My college essay was specifically about looking at Caravaggios' Basket of Fruit with this skilled educator guiding us through it and helping us to see the unexpected things lurking within this seemingly simple and boring painting. She turned the painting into something much larger, an allegory of the fragility of life. So that was my gateway to college. In graduate studies at the Courtauld Institute, Oxford, and Berkeley I focused ever more on landscape art across media, the ways in which music and architecture, and gardens relate to two-dimensional landscape art, particularly in dissertation work on the phenomenon of the “painter-architect.”.

 

I wanted to ask you more about your specialization in landscape painting. What do you think people who aren't familiar with this genre could gain from spending some time with these artworks?

This is kind of an unexpected byproduct of a St. Stephen's art history education which was so focused on religious and figure painting, all these great dramas and histories. I think I can trace a pretty consistent throughline there from studying Caravaggio and Bernini with Pamela Christy to studying Peter Paul Rubins at the Courtauld, another maker of great religious and history paintings, who then had this rather unexpected late-in-life transition to the landscape where he's both shaping a really interesting country house of his own and making this seemingly non-commercial group of landscape paintings that are really remarkable. So those were transition objects for me. It is also the case that the country whose art has come to fascinate me most, the country where I was born and raised, has a really unique and interesting tradition in this medium in particular, while it does not have the same rich tradition of religious and history painting. The nineteenth-century United States focused with unusual fervor and distinction on realist representations of the natural world in all its complexity: the layers of associations bound up with land, even in a country that seemed newer to European eyes. So there is history, too, in landscape art, this art form that can seem neutral and pleasant and decorative. Learning to look critically with people like Pamela Christy helped me to read these objects as fascinating products of their time which are not passive but active agents of change in a complex nation that has many challenges that continue from the 19th-century period that I focus on to our own time. So that's what I found so interesting about the landscape: just as Pamela Christy complicated Caravaggio's Basket of Fruit for me, so too can we unspool great stories and narratives from looking at these seemingly simple objects made in another time of great tumult, the middle decades of the 19th century.

 

Wonderful. I feel like I'm in an art history class. This is great, thank you. So I wanted to ask you, you mentioned your Ph.D. dissertation; what attracted you to studying artist's country houses specifically? And what do these places tell us about the people who built them?

I can answer that question by pointing to yet another legacy of that transformative period in Italy, where there is this incredibly refined, complicated, fascinating, internationally influential villa culture. The villas of Palladio in particular, their representational history in two dimensions, their long afterlives in the U.S. where people like Thomas Jefferson built explicitly Palladian villas of their own modeled on designs like the Villa Rotonda that Pamela Christy first showed me with a good old fashioned slide projector at St. Stephen's. My master's work at the Courtauld was with a scholar of Italian villas and their gardens; Rubens was a perfect case study as a practitioner of 2D media who also did really interesting work in three dimensions and was carrying on that legacy of the Italian Villa to the Low Countries. We can trace key works by Rubens in this tradition to English collectors and their American visitors. So there is a direct line of descent from Palladio to Rubens to John Constable to the likes of Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church.

 

Oh, that's fascinating. I had no idea that the origins of Thomas Cole and Frederic Church's country houses could be traced back to Palladio's Villa Rotonda but it makes perfect sense now that you have explained it. So, as the Director of Collections & Exhibitions at The Olana Partnership, you have placed an emphasis on broadening access and interpretation, including these recent efforts specifically to make it Olana more accessible digitally through this new immersive virtual experience that you now offer via a variety of technologies. I also noticed that in April 2021 you wrote an article called, "Preservation as Privilege" where you talked about the urgency of expanding the stories that we currently tell in light of the other reckoning happening in the museum community related to expanding access to all communities. Why, in your opinion, is it important to make places like Olana accessible to all and, related to that, what are the biggest remaining barriers to this project?

I've come to what has been a dream job for me at a really unique American museum that brings together a lot of my varied interests that began at St. Stephens. Olana is an important museum of 19th-century American landscape painting, certainly, but it's also a three-dimensional work of landscape art, a 250-acre earthwork by a remarkable landscape painter who was internationally well-traveled and learned and was conscious of many of these other case studies we've been talking about. I came to Olana from a more standard museum job working at the Newark Museum of Art in Newark, New Jersey, which has a major 19th-century American landscape painting collection. So from that background, it was exciting to step into this more senior role at a place that carries these lessons through to three dimensions in a really unique way. It's a place that has distinct opportunities and challenges as one of the best-preserved artists’ environments in the world, a remarkable masterpiece of landscape art with an explicitly Orientalist building at its heart that the painter called "Persian." We’re trying to bring rigor and nuance to the ways we talk about the complex stew of genuine affection, diligent study, and on-the-ground travel in the places he celebrated that went into this design choice alongside concerns about cultural appropriation. It's also the case that this artist, Frederic Edwin Church is this outlier in the culture because of this level of privilege that few other artists of his or any time have achieved, which allowed the place to be saved and to continue in the family into the 20th century until it can come into this joint management structure by New York State Parks and The Olana Partnership, the private side that employs me.

We hope that this place through its incredible preservation can be a kind of "lens into the past" that will also raise up the stories of Church's lifetime that were not so well preserved: artists of color, women artists working in the same region, the same period, the same networks, these fascinating stories that take us back to Rome of the female American sculptor community of that city which existed in Church's lifetime, including the great Edmona Lewis, an artist of color in a period that was very hostile to people who looked like her. We're doing more programs bringing in experts in the field to speak to our growing national and international audience about this larger 19th-century cultural moment using this incredible, uniquely preserved place to tell a story that is much larger. So that is a work in progress. We're certainly working to broaden beyond being a temple to one man and we're seeing the exciting possibilities that come with having a collection that is already global, including ceramics, textiles, metalwork, sculpture, photography, and, indeed, paintings from all over the world. So all of that is coming together in the service of offering an idea of Olana as a meeting place of ideas and dialogue.

 

You certainly have a unique opportunity both in terms of the breadth of the collection and having so much physical space to bring different groups in. Now, I wanted to also ask you, and you can answer however you see fit, what would you consider your greatest achievement thus far?

In addition to some exciting exhibitions and acquisitions, I’m especially proud of the virtual projects that have been really helpful to us in a challenging time for museums everywhere, helping people to gain access to these sites of inspiration and solace, even when a social distance can be hard to come by in a historic house environment. I led a grant-funded virtual imaging project that included both the first suite of user navigable interior imagery of the full charismatic main house of Olana with this technology called Matterport, of which I can share publicly one selected animated view from a much larger project. It's been helpful in unexpected ways because through scanning all the interior spaces of the house, we also build up this kind of physical understanding of the massing of the house that has helped us to understand how it fits together, the public and private sides of this remarkable building, as we have never seen it before. This effort also conducted gigapanoramic photography of the full 250-acre designed landscape of Olana to help with the large goal of integrating that outdoor experience even virtually alongside the house that is often our chief visitor draw. So that's been really exciting, having to learn on the job about these new technologies that we're as new to this 19th-century specialist as they were to most people when we all had to go virtual but I think it's been really successful and it has allowed us to give staff-led virtual tours for international groups, to be able to take people through Olana from Germany, in one case, so it has helped to make this place as global as it always wanted to be

 

What are some of your other passions outside of 19th-century art history?

I’m trying to take full advantage of country life in the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York my wife and one-year-old daughter, Cecilia, whose name is yet another tribute to the time at St. Stephen’s it occurs to me: she was named not only for the patron saint of music in general but in particular for the beautiful Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. We are working on climbing all the highest peaks of the Catskill Mountains, the range that has such a rich pictorial history in my line of work. It's been fascinating getting to know those places on foot and seeing the layered human history of that land long before Europeans ever arrived in this country. The other major personal passion is playing the mandolin, mostly traditional music of the North Atlantic.

 

Wonderful. Would you say that it has been a straight path for you to get to where you are right now or do you feel that you've been tested or challenged along the way? And if so, could you talk about what some of those challenges have been and how you've moved beyond them?

My path has been straighter than most in no small part because of that formative inspiration from Pamela Christy, which gave me certainty thenceforth that it would be art history for me. So for that reason, it was a very logical narrative of undergraduate to graduate study, to fellowships, to full-time work in teaching and museums. However, there certainly have been challenges along the line. It's been a very interesting time to be a specialist in 19th-century American landscape painting during a period of reckoning in the wider field. While those of use who go deep on this stuff know otherwise, to an uninitiated viewer historic American art can seem at best neutral and at worst harmful to the mission of telling broader stories in museum galleries. There have been recent episodes of museums violating the trust of their donors and public by selling such objects right out of their galleries, so I’ve joined with colleagues in speaking out about the need to embrace rigorous nuance and challenging dialogues in public museums and the urgency of protecting public collections for generations to come.

 

So my final question that I always ask is, do you have a piece of advice that you could offer to this year's graduating class?

I hope that they will carry forward lessons learned from the long and layered history of the city that has been their key teaching tool, a history that is immediately visible there as it is in so few other places in the world. Remember that other, humbler places you go also have these deep histories and multiple meanings, even if they are harder to see. By being an astute interpreter of the material evidence around us, perhaps we can be a part of making our own layer of history to be found by some future archaeologists a little more harmonious than those past.