Finding a sense of place: New director of Mead Art Museum looks to sink roots in the Valley

  • Siddhartha V. Shah will become the new director of the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. Amherst College photo

  • The Mead Art Museum at Amherst College has had an interim director since last September. Gazette file photo

  • Vanja Malloy, former curator of American Art at the Mead Art Museum, leads a tour there in 2019. The museum’s new director, Siddhartha V. Shah, starts work there this fall. Gazette file photo

  • A scene from a 2019 exhibit at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. The museum’s new director, Siddhartha V. Shah, starts work there this fall. Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Monday, September 19, 2022

The son of parents who came to the U.S. from India, Siddhartha V. Shah has lived, worked and traveled in a wide range of places over the years: Chicago, Baltimore and San Francisco; New York and London; India, France and Belgium; and most recently, New England.

It’s in New England that he’s first experienced a real sense of place, says Shah, the curator and director of education and civic engagement at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem.

“My sense of identity has not really been connected to a particular location or region, because I’ve lived all over,” he said. “But in Salem, you have this sense of deep roots … there are people here who can trace their families back over 350 years.”

Now Shah, who grew up in suburban Chicago, will look to build some connections in the Valley and at Amherst College in particular: He’s been appointed the new director of the school’s Mead Art Museum.

Shah, who received a bachelor’s degree in art history from Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate in art history from Columbia University, takes over the position after former Mead Director David Little left about a year ago to direct the International Center of Photography in New York City.

Michael Kunichika, who directs the Amherst Center for Russian Culture and also teaches Russian at the college, has served as the Mead’s interim director since Little’s departure.

In a recent phone call, Shah said part of the appeal of coming to Amherst stems from the significant effort the college has made in the past two decades to bring students of color, and especially students of lesser economic means, to campus. According to the college, about 49% of U.S. students at Amherst now identify as students of color.

“When I learned about that, particularly the emphasis on economic diversity, I thought, ‘This is a place where I can really feel a part of things,’” he said.

And Shah is also excited about the opportunities he’ll have to work with students and faculty at the Mead, as he’ll be charged with making the museum’s collection accessible to both groups in different ways, such as having faculty members draw on Mead resources when developing their curriculums. He’ll work to boost student engagement in a number of capacities, from interns to docents to scholars.

As he sees it, the challenge is to use the Mead’s collection to “create conversations” with students on how those objects may relate to their own lives, or how they shed light on histories, cultures and experiences completely different than their own.

“That’s how you build more cross-cultural understanding and awareness,” Shah said. “It’s not so much the preciousness of a particular object but what kind of stories and conversations you can generate about it.”

Shah, who began working at PEM in 2018 as the curator of the museum’s South Asian art collection — one of the largest such collections in the country — is relatively new to museum work. In his 20s and early 30s, he was an art dealer and consultant, at one point running his own gallery, with branches in New York and Berkeley, California (he also earned a master’s degree in East-West psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco).

“I began wondering, how can I make better use of my education and interest in art than selling objects to wealthy people?” he said. “I liked some of that work, but I felt there was something more I could do … I started my Ph.D. program when I was 35.”

He’s felt particularly drawn to his role as director of PEM’s education and civic engagement programs, which he began heading in 2020. Though the Mead Museum is a a good bit smaller than PEM, Shah says he’s looking forward to using that smaller scale to develop close ties to staff, students and faculty, as well as to the Valley as a whole.

“A sense of community is really important to me,” he said.

Aside from working with students and faculty, Shah will oversee the museum’s collections, acquisitions, exhibitions and programs, while also serving as the museum’s chief fundraiser — and his past sales experience should be helpful in that role, he says.

In a statement, Catherine Epstein, Amherst’s provost and dean of the faculty as well as a history professor, said the college is impressed with Shah’s background, experience, and “commitment to education, collaboration and broadening access to art on our campus and beyond. We are eager to see his vision at work at the museum and the new directions in which he takes the Mead.”

As a curator, Shah specializes in Hindu and Buddhist art of the Kathmandu Valley, visual and material culture of Victorian India, 19th-century European painting, and modern Indian art. At PEM, he curated the installation of the museum’s new South Asian Art Galleries “to consider how colonial occupation shaped ideas and perceptions of India that persist today,” Amherst officials said.

In fact, Shah is not due to start his new post at the Mead Museum until Nov. 15, as he is finishing up preparations for exhibits that will be staged at PEM next spring, as well as working with his staff to assure a smooth transition following his departure.

“I felt like I couldn’t just leave things hanging and unfinished,” he said. “But I’m really looking forward to coming to Amherst.”