06 Jan 2016
Harvard Business School’s Keeper of the Art
An interview with Collections Manager Melissa Renn
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Melissa Renn

Walk down the corridors of Aldrich, and you might think you were in an art gallery rather than a classroom building. The walls are decorated with oils, acrylics, watercolors, photographs, and even some original drawings by New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. Spangler and other campus sites have their fair share of artwork as well—all part of Harvard Business School’s burgeoning collection, which now numbers hundreds of pieces. Watching over them is Melissa Renn, a veteran of the Harvard Art Museums who joined HBS last April as the collections manager of the HBS Art and Artifacts Collection. Part of the Special Collections team in Baker Library, she recently answered some questions about how an experienced curator and published art historian found her way to HBS and what’s on her wish list for 2016.

What led you to HBS?

I was at the Harvard Art Museums for almost ten years, working in the Department of American Art with Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., Curator of American Art, Emeritus, with whom I co-authored American Paintings at Harvard, Volume One, which was published in conjunction with the museum’s reopening in 2014. As that project came to a close, I was referred to Laura Linard, the director of Baker Library’s Special Collections, who was looking for a consultant to work on the various art collections here, especially the 150 or so works that were part of the gift Charles Cotting made to HBS in the 1960s, including paintings by Fitz Henry Lane and prints by Currier & Ives; the large and eclectic collection of contemporary art made possible by the generosity of Gerald Schwartz (MBA 1970); and various pieces of modern art that have come to the School, many during the deanship of John McArthur from 1980 to 1995. Given my background in American and 20th-century art, it seemed like a good fit.

How did you acquire that kind of expertise?

I majored in art history and English at Stanford. After graduation, I went to Florence for a study-abroad program that increased my desire to go to graduate school. The grandeur of Italy notwithstanding, by that time I knew I wanted to focus on American art and was admitted to the graduate program at Boston University, where I earned a master’s degree in 2004 and a Ph.D. in 2011, both in art history.

What was the subject of your dissertation?

It focused on the role of Life magazine in the art world from 1936 to 1972. The publication, which is best known for its extraordinary photographs of news events, wars, politicians, and celebrities, also did extensive coverage of modern artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Rauschenberg. Beyond that, beginning in the 1930s, they commissioned works from various artists and even curated exhibitions in collaboration with institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

Among your many publications is an article on the iconic flag-raising by U.S. Marines during the battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. How does that fit into the picture?

I also have a great interest in photography, and my recent essay, which came out of my research on Life, revisited that famous February 1945 image by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal of the Marines on Mt. Suribachi. That flag raising, which became an inspirational symbol of America’s march toward victory in the Pacific theater, was actually a re-enactment of an initial raising that used a smaller flag attached to a length of pipe. Those in command ordered five other Marines to do it again with a flag that could be seen from a distance, and that was when Rosenthal took the now-famous photo. It ran immediately over the AP wire, but, as I discovered in the magazine’s archives, Life chose not to publish it for a couple of months, because at first the editors were skeptical about the image. To them, the composition of the Marines raising the flag with outstretched arms seemed too perfect in the midst of the horrific battle, and unlike all the other Iwo Jima images the editors saw, this one showed no men in foxholes, no debris, no death. When the magazine finally did publish the photo in March, it was placed in a section dedicated to miscellany and paired with the famous Emanuel Leutze oil painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War—a work that Leutze painted in Germany in the mid-1800s, long after the event took place.

What are your responsibilities here?

My first objective when I started full time last April was to do an inventory of every work of art on campus. I’m happy to say that over 1,300 objects—from paintings, textiles, photographs, and sculptures, to objects such as the Eliot Table in Frist Faculty Commons—have now been documented and catalogued via the same kind of collections management system used in museums. In addition, I’ve been creating a collection policy with Laura Linard and members of the School’s art committee—a group of staff from various departments, including the Dean’s Office, Operations, Knowledge and Library Services, and External Relations, who are leading the development of an HBS Art Program. I’ve also been working with conservators to assess, and in some cases, conserve certain works in the collection as well as installing art from the collection in new and fresh ways in various buildings across campus and collaborating with staff from Operations and Executive Education on art for new buildings such as Chao and Klarman and recently renovated spaces on campus.

What are your plans for the future in terms of art at HBS?

Needless to say, I want to see the art program continue to thrive. I also hope to expand our educational programming, including additional tours of the Schwartz collection, which now numbers about 300 pieces and continually grows via annual buying trips. The goal of that collection is to present new and provocative works that are meant not only to enhance the life of the School but also to inspire conversation among all who learn, teach, and work here. There’s also interest in developing a dynamic contemporary outdoor sculpture program. And we have pieces of great art historical significance—including the harbor scene by Fitz Henry Lane (see below), a group of clipper ship paintings by James Buttersworth, 19th-century paintings of mills in Lowell by Alvan Fisher and Thomas Doughty, and bronze sculptures of the American West by Cyrus Dallin and Charles Humphriss— that are worthy of more attention. I certainly want to continue to work with the HBS Art Society—a very active student club whose 150 or so members bring diverse points of view to the art objects we have on campus. In short, I’m delighted to be on a campus that enjoys and appreciates art the way Harvard Business School does.

Fitz Henry Lane, Gloucester Harbor at Sunset, c. 1859, oil on canvas, gift of Charles E. Cotting, 1968, Harvard Business School Art and Artifacts Collection (currently on loan to the Harvard Art Museums).

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