Small Museum Profile: Cantor Arts Center @Stanford University

If you have ever been to the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford, my guess is your memories are full of the astounding Rodins. Stanford has a massive collection of Rodin sculptures, displayed both inside the museum and outside in the garden, including The Gates of Hell, which is the epitome of a monumental work that is 100% more awe inspiring in person than via reproductions. What you might not remember is that this museum has a strong collection of photography, anchored by its collection of images by Eadweard Muybridge.

In what is now one of the most famous stories in the history of photography, Leland Stanford wanted to definitively find out whether a running horse had at least one foot on the ground at all times, and hired Muybridge to make a series of stop motion photographs to determine the truth. Muybridge went on to make studies for his book, Animal Locomotion, at Stanford’s farm in Palo Alto, CA, which later became Stanford University. Those pictures are now housed in the Cantor Arts Center.

The museum does not have a full time curator for photography, so the job is split between Betsy Fryberger (Curator of Prints and Drawings) who handles the 19th century work, and Hilarie Faberman (Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art) who handles the 20th and 21st century images. In general, photography is housed within the Prints and Drawings Department.

There are approximately 4000 images in the photography collection, with roughly 1650 of the images from the 19th century and the remainder (2350) from more recent times. Beyond the collection of Muybridge images, the Cantor Arts Center has strength in works by Robert Frank, Bill Brandt, Ansel Adams, and 19th century travel photography. On a going forward basis, the curators would like to develop the early modern collection, specifically German and Russian photography (so collectors out there, here’s where you can help).

In the past 10 years, the Cantor Arts Center has acquired approximately 700 images, with the bulk of those coming the past few years. The collection is being built via a combination of donations by patrons and artists and dedicated funds for photo acquisitions.

Unlike many smaller museums, the Cantor Arts Center always has a portion of the permanent collection of photography on view, often upstairs in the Contemporary galleries. The exhibition schedule for photography has been consistently active and of high quality. Here are a handful of the most recent shows:

  • Andy Warhol Photographs (2008)
  • Private and Public: Class, Personality, Politics, and Landscape in British Photography (2008)
  • Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks (2007)
  • In the American West: Photographs by Richard Avedon (2007)
  • Yosemite’s Structure and Textures: Photographs by Eadweard Muybridge, Carleton Watkins, Ansel Adams, and Others (2007)
  • Beefcake: The Physique Photography of Dave Martin (2006)
  • Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky, 1982–2002 (2005)
  • Time Stands Still: Muybridge and the Instantaneous Photography Movement (2003)

The museum has also produced two solid publications in conjunction with recent shows: Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks and Time Stands Still: Muybridge and the Instantaneous Photography Movement.

Visitors can access the photography collection at the museum via direct contract with a registrar or curator/curatorial assistant. There is a print viewing room that can be reserved by appointment to look at specific works.

Overall, the Cantor Arts Center’s photography program seems to be well run and the collection merits your attention during any visit to the Bay Area. In the spirit of full disclosure, I did my graduate degree at Stanford and both our children were born at Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, so we are perhaps less than perfectly objective. That said, 4000 images, a strong exhibitions calendar, and a historic relationship with one of the masters of the medium speak for themselves.

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