Charles Mason curates connections at Hope's new art museum

As the director of Hope College's new Kruizenga Art Museum, Charles Mason is using art to curate connections even before the museum is open. Stephanie Doublestein sits down with him and learns why he's passionate about getting the college's art out into the campus.
On paper, Charles Mason looks like an academic: degrees from Cambridge and UC Berkeley, a specialization in Chinese and Japanese art, previous jobs at museums in California, Toronto, and Florida. But in person, it's clear that the new director of the new Kruizenga Art Museum (KAM) at Hope College is a teacher at heart. Whether in one-on-one conversation in his tiny office in Lubbers Hall or while addressing large groups of alumni, Mason is affable, approachable and accessible, with a palpable sense of enthusiasm for the task that lies ahead.
That task is no small task. Mason, hired in summer 2013, has been brought on board to lead the development and creation of the new campus art museum, set to open in fall 2015. The proposed building, named after lead donors and alumni Dick and Margaret Kruizenga, will be a 7,000-square-foot modern structure on Columbia Avenue, though ground has not yet been broken. In the meantime, however, Mason has been quite busy doing a little bit of everything, from research to repair to photography to database creation. That's because the college, which began receiving significant donations to its art collection in the 1960s, has never had a dedicated staff member to manage the collection.
"The college has 50 years of art which has never been researched or properly catalogued," says Mason. "Some things are in need of attention in terms of taking them out of old mats or frames, and there are things hanging around campus getting too much light."
Mason has begun cataloguing and labeling every work in Hope's collection, which contains works by Dali, Chagall, Picasso and Lichtenstein as well as Mexican folk art, woodcuts, sculpture, and an extensive collection of Japanese ceramics. He's slowly creating a database that will be available to students and faculty so they can see just what the college has.
"Faculty and students don't have a clear sense of what will be in the museum or why the college is building a museum. In fact, Hope does have a collection that needs a museum," says Mason. "Partly by accident – there's not been one single person guiding this over the years; it's been faculty and students – but somehow the college has put together a collection that has coherence. I need to define that and show people what we have."
The KAM will have two major exhibit spaces, with one showcasing displays from the museum's permanent collection and the other gallery hosting temporary exhibitions. Both, Mason hopes, will be places where both Hope students as well as the larger West Michigan community will interact with art in meaningful ways.
"It will be a free, public museum," says Mason. He intends to work with local schools and arts organizations to curate exhibitions, and he thinks the KAM will complement – not compete with – other area arts institutions.
"We're going to have European and American collections, a strong Asian component, and African art. It will broaden people's artistic and cultural horizons," Mason says. "I think there's a lot of American and European art in this area, but not so much other kinds of art. I think there are historical reasons for that, but with my background in Asian art and a personal interest in African art, to have some non-western art mixed in would provide exposure beyond what is immediately familiar."
He sees internal partnerships and joint programs with multiple academic departments as key to making the art matter to students, referencing past experiences at Oberlin College that involved music students composing in response to a piece of art and then performing in the space. He sees opportunities for language students to hold a class in the museum and practice their language skills by discussing a piece of art in a foreign language. He says there could be intentional connections between the theater department's upcoming season or an English class, for example, and the works on display. And he talks about incorporating Michigan state standards and benchmarks into exhibitions that will host local elementary schools.
It's this collaborative spirit and passion for interdisciplinary teaching that drives Mason to create a museum that will change the lives of students of all ages. He's especially excited about the art study room, where students can look at works up close.
"It's a different access than looking at it on the computer," says Mason. "Getting close to something made 500 years ago and getting to handle works of art – I've seen that have a transformative effect on people. Students who were marginally interested in art can come alive with that kind of experience."
Mason says he believes there will also be opportunities for the KAM to collaborate with the Holland Museum, Meijer Gardens, GRAM, and the UICA, for example, to increase the museum's reach. He attended his first ArtPrize this fall with his wife and two young children, and he's encouraged by the robust art scene in West Michigan.
"ArtPrize is helping to cultivate a base of people who expect to be able to engage with art. Museums are always wrestling with how to overcome the barrier of people who think museums are not for them," says Mason, adding that seeing people of all ages have a good experience with public art was "amazing."
Going forward, Mason would like to bring in emerging artists and make room for experimental art alongside the more curated permanent collection, brainstorming aloud about shows by artists who are also college or university educators, or a series featuring artists under 40. "I think because we're a smaller museum and we're not financially dependent on admissions revenue, there's an opportunity for us to showcase experimental artists. The MET may not do that kind of show, but it's an important thing to do."
His highest priority, though, is to get the college's art out into the campus so students can engage with it. Mason thinks connecting with art helps develop empathy and critical thinking skills, and thinks the KAM will play a big role in that development: "Art is made by someone else. It tells a story, expresses their feelings. If you approach it . . . you have your own beliefs and values, but you can recognize that someone else has different values and beliefs. It lets you examine differences and commonalities. It's the bedrock of American civic society."
Art, says Mason, makes you think about your place in the world. "For young people who are forming their identities, what's more important than figuring out your place in the world around you?"

Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.
Photography by Adam Bird