Director of the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art
With a Bachelor of Arts degree from Douglass College of Rutgers University in New Jersey and a Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., Marilyn Laufer joined the Auburn University Art Department faculty as an instructor in 1996. For 10 years she divided her time between teaching and working as a guest curator and/or guest program coordinator for such institutions as the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia, among others. In 2006 she was asked to serve as interim co-director of the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University. She was named director at the museum in 2007. She currently commutes from Columbus, Ga., where she lives with her husband, Tom Butler, also an art museum director, and their two opera-loving dachshunds, Carmen and Siegfried.
1. Why did you pick art, or specifically museum work, as your career?
I think it picked me. When I was about 12 years old my mother was in a serious car accident which resulted in her having physical therapy in Philadelphia every Saturday morning for about a year. We lived about 40 minutes away in southern New Jersey, and she made me tag along for the drive. Instead of making me sit in the waiting room, she dropped me off at the Philadelphia Art Museum and told me to be ready to tell her about one special piece that I found in the museum on the ride home. That was a gift for which I will always be thankful. After that year, going to an art museum was like reading a book or listening to music: It was an essential part of my life.
Still my parents were surprised - and a little concerned - when I came home my freshman year and told them I was changing my major to art history. My father asked me on every visit home how I planned to make a living, which resulted in my convincing the staff at the Rutgers University art museum to hire me under the work study program, something until then reserved for graduate students. I knew I needed to prove to him I could get a job in this field. The truth is, he was right to be concerned. I have been very lucky being able to do what I love.
2. Tell us a little about the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art.
It is rather a new tradition to add to the Auburn experience. We opened to the public in 2003, which means we will celebrate our 10th anniversary in 2013. But the actual idea of having an art collection for Auburn University dates back to 1948. That was the year that the university acquired 36 pieces of American modern art from a war surplus auction. The story of how that sale came about is just part of the curatorial scholarship that went into the extraordinary exhibition that we are featuring this fall, "Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy," which reassembles all but 10 pieces of the 117 that were part of that sale. This project is a result of the collaborative efforts of the Jule Collins Smith Museum, the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma and the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia. The exhibition, accompanying catalogue, educational programs and national tour are being made possible by grants from the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius.
This core collection of American modernism, which hung in campus offices over the years, really served as the impetus to build a museum. There were a number of false starts over the years but somewhere in the mid-1990s the project got moving again, and by sheer force of will, a handful of very determined people succeeded in raising the funds. The energy behind the movement to build a museum set the stage for important acquisitions, which include the outstanding Miller collection of Audubon prints, the exquisite Carlisle collection of Belleek porcelain, the European modern art in the Harbert collection and the significant and growing Ekelund and Thornton collection of 20th century Mexican works on paper.
There are many more that I should mention, but hopefully very soon the university will be able to access the entire museum collection on a database attached to our website. We want our community to be able to utilize this significant resource. Currently many faculty members include class visits to our exhibitions as part of their curricula. This can range from students studying the birds and plants in our Audubon prints to a dance performance inspired by an exhibited work of art. As a university art museum, being relevant to the entire campus is something we strive for every day. We also are committed to serving as an important university outreach center, and to date we have had great success with that. This week alone we had tours from area daycare centers, a retirement community group from Columbus, Ga., and Camp Kaleidoscope, not to mention our own weekly art classes for various ages. The truth is summer is a slower time here at the museum. You should see all that happens in a week's time in the fall or spring!
3. The museum is about to begin a membership drive. Since the museum is funded as a part of Auburn University, how does that work?
We are in a wonderful partnership. We are an academic unit under the Office of the Provost. Most of our staff members are Auburn University employees, the beautiful building is owned and maintained by the university, and our art collections are held in trust for the university and the people of Alabama. But all of the programs are dependent on the funds we raise every year. Becoming a museum member is a hands-on way to ensure the museum has the funds needed annually to provide you with the kind of cultural programs that enhance your quality of life. We work very hard writing grants, finding sponsors and soliciting friends to help us raise the funds we need to provide the kinds of programs you have come to expect of us.
But annual memberships are our life's blood, and they range from $45 for an individual to $1,000 and above. There are perks with the different levels of membership such as discounts in the gift shop and being invited to participate in member's only events. Art Changes Lives is part of our mission statement, and it is something we firmly believe in at the museum. If you think that the museum has made the campus and community a better place to live and work, then I urge you to confirm that by becoming a member.
Of course, the museum offers free online student memberships as a way to engage individual students to think of the museum as a place to meet friends, take a study break and enjoy a completely unique environment as part of their campus experience. Being at college is supposed to offer you diverse experiences and expose you to new ideas. I think visiting the museum fulfills that expectation.
4. The membership drive includes a Welcome Back Party for students. What kinds of things do you have planned?
Actually, we have hosted a welcome back party for the last few years and have had great success with it. This year it is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 16, from 5 to 8 p.m. We will have a band and food, as well as a limited supply of free soft Frisbees for students who sign up as new members. I would like to give a special shout out to our faculty and staff and invite them to stop by as well. A lot is going on that night, but chilling on the museum terrace in the early evening is always delightful, not to mention that our current exhibitions are wonderful and you might want to catch them before we change out for the fall season. This event is part of a week-long membership drive so if you cannot make it that night you have other chances...though I cannot promise music and food.
5. The Jule Collins Smith Museum was recently named the Best Museum in Bama by Alabama Magazine. How did that come about?
That's the result of a write-in campaign, and actually we did not actively pursue getting that award. I think our visitors recognize the museum's great programs and exhibitions and they voted for us. For me, the biggest tribute is that Alabama has great art museums, and all of them have worked closely with our museum over the last decade to help us grow and develop as a viable institution. I have nothing but admiration for my colleagues at the Birmingham Art Museum, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, the Huntsville Museum of Art, the Mobile Museum of Art and the Wiregrass Museum in Dothan. It is affirming to be in such good company. We also owe so much to the Auburn Family who embrace our unique role on campus. As I said, I am very lucky to be able to do what I love.
Last Updated: Aug. 6, 2012