Move over public museums, college museums are taking over!

While doing research on institutions that collect art and artist archives, I came across many college museums that were interested in collecting art works from an array of artists, styles, and forms. I was puzzled—why are colleges collecting so much art? I soon learned there isn’t just one answer to this question.

(c) Samuel Ludwig

(c) Samuel Ludwig

Some colleges are finding different ways to introduce art history to other disciplines. According to Jacoba Urist’s article “Why Do Colleges Have So Much Art?” [1], medical schools are introducing students to art for a plethora of reasons. Yale Medical School requires all incoming students to participate in the “Making the Invisible Visible: Art, Identity, and Hierarchies of Power” program, which introduces participants to art via objects on view at the Yale Art Gallery. Through these encounters with visual works, this program encourages students to identify and confront their biases in the interest of learning how to empathize with others and support future patients in the best ways possible. Similarly, the University of Virginia Medical School partnered with The Fralin Museum of Art to create the “Clinician Eye Program” to help students improve their observational and diagnostic skills.

Colleges have become the preferred beneficiary for art donors. According to Daniel Grant’s article “Art Donors Increasingly Look to University Museums”, the appeal stems from the increased likelihood of the donor’s art being displayed and used in academic curriculum. Universities are also more likely to adhere to donors’ requests. By contrast, an artwork given to a museum is less likely to be on display and will more likely spend most of its time in the archive.

Most importantly, university museums often bring contemporary and critical work to places that otherwise lack an art presence. The Fralin Museum of Art, for example, is one of only two fine art museums in Charlottesville, Virginia. The foundation of The Fralin Museum and others like it allow locals access to significant exhibitions and works of art without having to go to a major city.

Universities are also increasingly commissioning art for their campus. This includes such noted works as sculptor Do Ho Suh’s Fallen Star, 2012, created for UC San Diego, and critically acclaimed artist Olafur Eliasson’s The Parliament of Reality, 2009, installation at Bard College.

Allowing students to work with historical resources and engage art within other disciplines, university museum are game changers. They are not only interested in preserving 19th century and older works, but also support and commission work from important contemporary artists of our time.

Nikisha Roberts


[1] Jacoba Urist, “Are There Too Many College Art Museums?” The Atlantic, accessed November 1, 2016,

[2] Daniel Grant, “Art Donors Increasingly Look to University Museums,” The Wall Street Journal, accessed February 11, 2019,