In an innovative collaboration among three prominent college art museums, the directors announce the joint acquisition of an extraordinary gift of Tibetan art from the Jack Shear Collection. Ian Berry of the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, T. Barton Thurber of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, and Pamela Franks of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) extend their gratitude to Jack Shear for his generous gift, which includes an array of visually stunning thangka paintings. These traditional Tibetan paintings are used as instructional and devotional objects, with Buddhist imagery painted on cloth and typically covered by a curtain of fabric and rolled for storage when not in use. Vivid illustrations on the front of the scrolls are complemented by detailed inscriptions on the reverse. For many centuries and still today, thangka paintings have been displayed during rituals and at certain times of year in monasteries, local shrines, and households, as objects of veneration, tokens of blessing, guides for meditation, and tools for teaching and learning.
While removed from their original contexts, these paintings retain many aspects of their intended purpose in their new homes. They will serve as educational tools, as catalysts for new scholarship, as inspiration for artistic expression, as subjects of close study, and as art to be appreciated in dialogue with the museums existing collections. Each institution has acquired a third of the more than 60 objects, and the collection will be considered a shared whole, accessible to all partners, and providing a rich source of ongoing collaborations including coursework, publications, and exhibitions.
The thangka span several centuries (likely 18th20th) and feature colorful, often elaborate depictions of Buddhist scenes, deities, and mandala. Distemper paint on cloth ground, usually silk or cotton, is the traditional medium. There are scenes from the lives of the Shakyamuni Buddha, various incarnations of the Dalai Lamas, and Avadana teaching stories. Some would have been used by monks to practice advanced meditation techniques, others to tell the stories of great Buddhist teachers, while others depict deities who grant wealth, long life, protection, or healing concerns more relevant to the daily life of lay Buddhists. In addition to the paintings, the Jack Shear Collection of Tibetan Art features related objects such as divination mirrors, a personal shrine, and initiation cards or tsaklipainted images used in ritualized meditation practice.
The Tang Teaching Museum has a longstanding relationship with Jack Shear, who is a photographer, curator, collector and executive director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. In 2015, Shear donated 1,500 photographs from his collection to Skidmore College, and has subsequently made generous contributions in support of the museums publications and collections programs. In fact, Shear has connections to all three institutions whether as a lender, donor, or advisory committee member. Inspired by his collaborations with the Tang, Shear began discussing a home for his Tibetan art collection with Director Ian Berry, who suggested the idea of multiplying the impact of his gift through a joint acquisition among the three campus art museums. Berry explains, This gift of the Jack Shear Collection of Tibetan Art represents a monumental collaboration in collection and resource sharing among academic museums, and we hope it becomes a model for other institutions. Offering abundant thematic connections across a liberal arts curriculum, the paintings will become integral to courses in studio art, religion, philosophy, history, political science, cognitive science, health and wellness, and comparative studies, to name but a few.
Ariana Maki, Associate Director of the University of Virginia Tibet Center and Bhutan Initiative and lecturer in Art History and Religious Studies, has worked as a consultant on the project since 2021. Maki visited the Tang to view the works, conducting thorough research on each object and sharing her extensive knowledge of art and culture in the Himalaya. Maki investigated the course catalogs of the three colleges and recommended a division of the collection based on an equitable sharing of works that illustrate key Buddhist themes and in correlation with the faculty expertise and relative strengths of each institution. In January, WCMA organized an online preview of the collection, led by Maki, for museum staff and faculty from Williams, Vassar, and Skidmore. Teaching and learning with art is what animates everything we do at our institutions, says WCMA Director Pamela Franks. And it is a spirit of openness and generosity that is essential to any collaboration, a spirit Ian has modeled for us from his initial invitation to be part of this extraordinary opportunity.
On March 5, 2022, an inaugural exhibition of the gift, Mastery and Merit: Tibetan Art from the Jack Shear Collection, opened at the Loeb Center at Vassar College. Subsequent presentations at WCMA and at the Tang Museum are planned for the spring 2023 and fall 2023 semesters respectively. Organized by Ariana Maki as guest curator, the exhibition at Vassar introduces the collection along thematic lines. Given that teaching is at the heart of Buddhism as well as the museums educational mission, Maki has centered Vassars exhibition on the roles of Buddhist masters in Tibetan history, politics, religious practice, and the regular lives of everyday practitioners. Loeb Director Bart Thurber says, In our planning and preparation for this exhibition, Arianas wealth of knowledge has spurred wonderful exchanges among faculty and curators, but it is her passion for the art and for this region of the world that has truly opened up these objects for us. This is the experience we wish to replicate for others through the exhibition.