On Tuesday, Jan. 31, the Mead Art Museum opened its doors to the general public for the first time in nearly three years, after closing in March 2020 at the onset of the Covid pandemic. The time spent shuttered allowed the museum to improve its accessibility, renovate its lobby, and add new educational opportunities for classes studying art.
The museum had been open to students and faculty last academic year, but it closed to all in March 2022, after a routine inspection revealed that the Stearns Steeple, which sits adjacent to the Mead, required repairs to ensure its structural integrity.
The delays meant that the Mead would reopen under its new director, Siddhartha V. Shah, who said he has been working to make the museum available to the public since his arrival at Amherst less than three months ago.
In his brief time at the Mead, Shah has already embarked on new initiatives, particularly to improve the museum’s accessibility. Shah explained that the museum staff were trained and certified by KultureCity, a non-profit organization that helps venues become more sensorily inclusive. “If you’re entering a space in the museum where there’s noise,” Shah explained, for instance, “then we [will in the future] have noise-canceling headphones that people might want to put on if they’re sensitive to sound.”
“We also have things like weighted lap pads, So if someone wants to communicate and in the moment is not able to speak or just in general is not able to speak, they're able to communicate their needs.”
“[This] means that we're better prepared to welcome visitors with invisible disabilities,” Shah said. He added that the Mead is one of the only museums in the Amherst area to be certified in this way.
The physical space of the museum has also been renovated. Previously, a large wooden desk took up most of the space in the lobby, but it has since been replaced by a smaller desk and a small lounge area. This new lobby, Shah explained, felt less cold and much more welcoming to visitors.
Aside from physical changes, the reopening of the Mead is bringing back educational opportunities for classes studying art on campus. Over the pandemic period, classes were only able to visit the Mead’s study rooms, where pieces of art would be brought in by museum curators to simulate a mini-exhibition. Now, the Mead’s galleries are open to classes, according to Emily Potter-Ndiaye, the Dwight and Kirsten Poler and Andrew W. Mellon head of education and curator of academic programs at the Mead. This is a first for the majority of students, who weren’t here prior to Covid.
Alongside the reopening of exhibitions to Amherst classes, The Mead is unveiling several new galleries in the near future. Its first exhibition of the year, “Architectural Ghosts,” curated by Karen Koehler, visiting professor of art history and chair of the Department of Art and the History of Art, opened on Jan. 31 and will remain so until June 25.
On Feb. 24, the Mead will open a new exhibition titled “God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin.” The exhibition was organized by New Yorker Staff Writer and University of California, Berkeley, Professor Hilton Als, who will also be on campus as a presidential scholar for LitFest later this month.
Potter-Ndiaye said that the exhibition will present “different ways of approaching James Baldwin as a person and as an educator — and how his experiences with art and artists informed his politics.”
On March 7, during the sixth annual Black Art Matters Festival, the Mead will feature student artwork. Due to the repairs needed on the Stearns Steeple, the student art exhibition from last year’s Black Art Matters Festival took place in the Powerhouse. This year, the festival will display student art from last year as well as this year in the Mead’s galleries.
“It’s going to be right next to the Baldwin show. So it’ll be really visible — everybody will see it,” said Potter-Ndiaye. The Mead is still collecting student submissions for this event. The deadline for submissions was Monday, Feb. 6, but may still be extended depending on how many submissions are received.
To celebrate its reopening and new initiatives, the Mead will be hosting a Welcome Back Party and Opening Reception for the “Architectural Ghosts” exhibition on Wednesday, Feb. 8, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Shah expressed his excitement at being able to share the Mead with students on campus. “I really believe that the museum can be a space for students to slow down, to destress, activate their imaginations, and just really celebrate human creativity,” he said. “I want the museum to be a place where students can really think critically about all of the images that are coming at us all the time.”Potter-Ndiaye similarly emphasized the importance of students visiting the Mead.“It’s this nice window into a world that is both of Amherst College and beyond,” she said. “Students should know it’s a place to breathe and have fun.”
The Mead encourages students to get involved in any way they can, whether that be by submitting their own artwork or taking part in the planning of various upcoming events and festivals. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Thursdays until 10 p.m.