By a Series of Curious Crab-like Motions

by Michael O'Malley

last edited on Wed. October 22 2014

On a crisp October day in 1974, a few hundred members of the University community and the Chicago art world assembled under a large tent on campus.

University of Chicago Dean of the Humanities Division, Karl Weintraub, stepped to the microphone to introduce the keynote speaker for the afternoon’s outdoor ceremony. He spoke deliberately: “Sir Francis Watson was trained as a mathematician at St. John’s College at Cambridge University. Some sort of humanistic guardian-angel must have interfered at that point to rescue the mathematician for the world of art.”

The occasion was the dedication of the brand new David and Alfred Smart Gallery, and Sir Watson, whose full list of credentials could significantly boost the word count of a desperately last-minute undergraduate research paper, had been invited to give an inaugural address titled “The Role of a Museum in a University.”

“As the dean’s already explained to you I have no qualifications whatever for talking to you this afternoon,” Watson began. “I am not an art historian; I’m a mathematician. I really shouldn’t be here at all. I crept into museums by a crab-like motion and I became an academic, I suppose, by a crab-like motion.” With his dry English wit and lilting Oxbridge accent, Watson continued, “I am supposed to talk this afternoon about the relations between museums and universities. Well, I really don’t know anything about the subject at all!”

He did, of course, know quite a bit about the subject. As he explained, “I suppose having been for forty years in one museum, the last fifteen of it as director, I’ve picked up a few bits of knowledge of what museums are…” His speech touched on the history of museums, the founding of the Courtauld Institute, and the necessity of using original works in the teaching of art history. He quoted Max Friedländer: “People who read books on works of art are like people who read cookery books and think that their hunger will thereby be won’t, you know!”

Listen to Dean Weintraub's introduction and Sir Watson's full speech (MP3).

After the ceremony, Frank Woods (Chairman of the Woods Charitable Foundation), John Smart (Smart Family Foundation Trustee), Prof. Ed Maser (Smart Gallery Director), and Gaylord Donnelley (Chairman of the University of Chicago Board of Trustees) cut the ribbon. The Smart was officially open.

The assembled crowd flowed through the gates, into the courtyard, then into the brand new galleries. The inaugural exhibition was on display: the Joel Starrels Jr. Memorial Collection, a sculpture-focused show echoed by the Smart’s current exhibition, Carved, Cast, Crumpled: Sculpture All Ways. Another echo from the past can be found in the Smart's forthcoming discussion series, How to Make a Smart Museum, which, in the same spirit as Sir Watson's talk, is focused on the role of a university art museum. The first of these discussions titled The Museum Proposition addresses the following question: "What is the one thing, above all others, that must sit at the heart of an engaged art museum?"