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The Legacy of Finch College: How Its Museum of Art Preserved Its Cultural Heritage


In this article, Finch College was an all-female liberal arts college founded in Manhattan by Jessica Finch in 1900 as an outlet for women’s rights activism and Socialism. It closed down in 1976 but its campus remains active as home for a Modern Orthodox Jewish preparatory school. Finch College was also home to an exceptional museum of art during its existence, featuring some of the most groundbreaking and diverse artists of the 20th century. Finch College Museum of Art was established in 1959, publishing over one hundred books on art history. They also hosted exhibits featuring works by Edmond Casarella, Hedda Sterne, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono and Robert Rauschenberg – among many others.

Elayne Varian was responsible for organizing an Experimental Media and Film Wing between 1964 and 1975. This section of the museum focused on experimental media and film, while hosting programs about them as well. Finch College Museum of Art now maintains an archive of records that includes artist files, correspondence, photographs, interviews, films and videos from its time at Finch College – such as correspondence with artists, photographs of interviews conducted, films produced or videos made – at the Archives of American Art at Smithsonian Institution. We will examine how Finch College Museum of Art preserved Finch College students and alumni as well as art world heritage.

finch college
finch college

The Museum’s Mission and Vision

The Finch College Museum of Art was not your average college museum; instead it sought to reflect contemporary art’s diversity and provide a platform for emerging and underrepresented artists. Elayne Varian’s 1964 mission statement stated as such.

“The Contemporary Study Wing of Finch College Museum of Art is a non-profit educational institution with the purpose of exhibiting contemporary art in all media to the general public. The Wing is committed to exploring new forms and techniques while also featuring significant works from both established artists as well as unknown ones. Additionally, this wing acts as a center for research and documentation of contemporary art as well as providing an outlet for discussion among artists, critics, students, and the general public.”

The museum was founded on a vision to create an environment where art could be experienced, studied, and discussed without being constrained by academic or commercial pressures. Furthermore, they desired to foster dialogues between artists and audiences while engaging and stimulating creativity among students through workshops, lectures, seminars, film screenings, performances as well as opportunities for interning or assistanting curators or interning at other museums such as MoMA/Whitney Museum/Solomon R Guggenheim to co-organize joint exhibitions/events with these institutions in organizing exhibitions/events jointly organized exhibitions/events together.

The Museum’s Exhibitions and Artists

Finch College Museum of Art was known for its pioneering exhibitions that often challenged traditional categories of art. It showcased works from artists representing multiple backgrounds and movements including Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptual Art Fluxus Feminist Art and Environmental Art – some notable exhibitions and artists presented include these.

  • The Art of Assemblage (1961), was an extraordinary exhibition which explored found object and collage techniques within art, featuring works from Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg and many more artists.
  • New Forms – New Media (1960 and 1965) was a two-part exhibition that introduced emerging media and technologies in art such as kinetic sculpture, light art, sound art, computer art and computerized artworks by Jean Tinguely, Nam June Paik, John Cage and others.
  • Ten (in 1966) was an exhibition showcasing works by ten young and unknown artists who later became influential figures in the art world, such as Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt and Robert Smithson.
  • Destruction Art (1968) was an exhibition that explored the theme of destruction and violence within art, featuring works by Yoko Ono, John Latham, Gustav Metzger and others.
  • Women’s Work: American Art ’72 (1972), an exhibition to recognize and commemorate women artists including Louise Bourgeois, Judy Chicago and Alice Neel among many others, was held.
  • Artists Make Toys (1975) was an exhibition which invited artists to create toys or toy-like objects, featuring Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Christo and other famous names like this.

The museum provided support and exposure for individual artists by organizing solo exhibitions, publishing catalogs and conducting interviews. Some of these artists included Edmond Casarella, Hedda Sterne, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein Marisol James Rosenquist Louise Nevelson Christo as well as others.

The Museum’s Legacy and Impact

Finch College Museum of Art closed due to financial strain in 1975; however, its legacy and impact remain apparent today. The records of a museum provide invaluable resources and inspiration for scholars, curators and artists alike. Furthermore, its alumni – artists critics collectors educators have gone on to shape and influence the art world over time. The Museum’s groundbreaking exhibitions have inspired other museums and institutions. Their innovative approaches to art were recognized and revisited; furthermore, their vision – celebrating diversity and creativity within contemporary art – has been adopted and followed by other museums and organizations.

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