A shot of the Johnson Museum at Cornell University at night.

The museum in 2017, when an artwork was projected onto its façade; the Cosmos installation is visible under the overhang at left. (Jason Koski / Cornell University.)

Works of Art, Inside and Out: The Johnson Museum at 50

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By Lindsay Lennon

For his Cosmos installation at Cornell’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art in 2012, artist Leo Villareal assembled nearly 12,000 LEDs in an overhead grid. Inspired by the work of late astronomer Carl Sagan, Villareal pre-programmed the lights in a swirling, constantly changing dance—much like our view of the stars from one season to the next.

A bench directly underneath the outdoor display offers an immersive experience, akin to staring at the night sky to ponder the universe.

But Cosmos can also be seen from well away from the museum; more than a decade after its installation, it still shines in daylight and dazzles at nightfall, in a perpetual performance.

For Jessica Levin Martinez, Cosmos has come to represent the institution she has led since 2019: a campus mainstay that’s not only home to treasured artworks, but offers a new experience at every visit.

“The museum is so dynamic in its rate of change, even though the building stays solid,” says Martinez, the Johnson’s Richard J. Schwartz Director. “There are some people who come back to see their favorite work of art over and over—but en route to that, they always see something new.”

Architect I.M. Pei posing in a suit at the Johnson Museum of Art.
Architect Pei in the lobby. (Cornell University)

Now in its 50th year, the Johnson—whose striking design by renowned architect I.M. Pei has made it one of East Hill’s most iconic structures—boasts 40,000 works from six continents, including one of the most robust Asian and Pacific collections of any museum in the country.

Even the most casual art lover would recognize some of the iconic names in the museum’s collection.

They include (to mention just a few): etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn; paintings by Mary Cassatt; prints by Andy Warhol; and—favorites of many visitors—William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s charming Goose Girl portrait and Alberto Giacometti’s haunting sculpture Walking Man II.

Alberto Giacometti's Walking Man II sculpture.
Walking Man II, whose symbolism has a variety of interpretations. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

But over the decades, the Johnson has grown into much more than a museum for the Cornell community.

With its ravishing fifth-floor views—of campus, Ithaca, and Cayuga Lake—it’s both a must-see locale and an orientation point for visitors and new arrivals.

It’s a place of respite—particularly in its Morgan Japanese Garden (designed by Marc Peter Keane ’79), where seats are much coveted in the warmer months.

The view of Cayuga Lake as seen through the fifth floor window of Cornell University's Johnson Museum.
The unbeatable view from the fifth floor. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

And for many Big Red lovebirds, it’s one of the Hill’s most romantic spots: a popular site for first dates, engagement photos, and wedding receptions.

The museum is also an academic and cultural resource, on the Hill and beyond. Each year, it hosts field trips for thousands of K–12 students from dozens of schools across the Southern Tier.

And, in 2022–23 alone, it coordinated over 250 class visits with more than 50 academic departments from across the Hill, in topics as diverse as Greek mythology, global water sustainability, and inclusive leadership.

An aerial shot of a college campus construction site.
Vintage vista: the construction site. (Cornell University)

“Education is at the core of the Johnson,” says director emeritus Frank Robinson, who led the museum from 1992–2011—a span that covered nearly half of its first four decades.

“One of my great mantras is: ‘You can’t leave a museum as narrow a person as you entered.’ It automatically opens you up to other cultures and ways of thinking.”

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Richard J. Schwartz Director Jessica Levin Martinez
Jessica Levin Martinez. (Becca Hagen Photography)

And the Pei-designed building is an attraction in its own right. The modular, Bauhaus-inspired concrete structure is distinct in its dual embrace of the surrounding landscape and its utilitarian function as a museum.

On opening day in May 1973, Pei—who’d go on to design the Louvre’s glass pyramid, among other notable works—admitted that the site’s beautiful-but-complicated geography was a source of “obsession” for his team.

“Before, when you looked north across Library Slope, all you could see was sky and trees, and you can’t beat that,” he said at the dedication. “To put a building there was a challenge we couldn’t resist.”

The result was a bright, boxy, multi-layered structure, much of it flooded with natural light—a somewhat uncommon and unexpected feature in a fine art museum.

“In every way, it fights against museum fatigue,” observes Martinez. “I think I.M. Pei was thinking about how we work, day to day—how the spaces allow for, and encourage, creativity and a constant breath of fresh air. You can connect with nature, refresh your eye and your mind, and then look closer again.”

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Virtual Gallery Tour

A small sampling of the museum’s treasures

The institution traces its roots to a single painting: the 19th-century work Communion Sunday in a Church in Holland, which was gifted to the University in 1911 and originally hung in the foyer of Goldwin Smith Hall.

As Robinson explains, founding president A.D. White (who had left office in 1885, but was still closely associated with Cornell) considered it to be the first significant work owned by the University; he pledged that one day East Hill would be home to an art collection, and that a museum would be created to house it.

A crowd of people in front of the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in the 1970s.
Opening day. (Cornell University)

As the University acquired art over the next decades—including (in 1960) Walking Man II, which Robinson calls its single most important work—a museum was established in the A.D. White House, the Victorian villa that White had built as his presidential home.

Given its small size and residential design, though, it was hardly ideal.

That changed with the opening of the Johnson Museum, named for the Class of 1922 alumnus who gave a $3.5 million gift for its construction.

(Members of the same family, which runs the manufacturing firm S.C. Johnson & Son, are also benefactors of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and its Johnson Graduate School of Management.)

The 61,000-square-foot building underwent an expansion in 2011, based in part on an underground segment of Pei’s design that was never built.

The new 16,000-square-foot wing, designed by original head architect John Sullivan III ’62, BArch ’63, added a 150-seat lecture hall, office and exhibition spaces, and the Japanese garden.

An exhibition on display in the Johnson Museum.
The works on display in a 50th anniversary exhibition will change throughout the year. (David Brown ’83)

The project also doubled the museum’s storage capacity, and made possible significant renovations to the existing building.

What may be in store for the museum’s second half-century?

In addition to increasing student engagement, Martinez’s goals include acquiring and exhibiting more work by women and other groups who are historically underrepresented in the art world.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s The Goose Girl painting
Bouguereau’s The Goose Girl.

Staff have worked with faculty from Cornell’s Migrations program, through its partnership with the Mellon Foundation’s Just Futures Initiative, to invite artists to create new exhibitions exploring the intersection of migration, dispossession, and racism.

The Johnson also has an eye on sustainability, both in how the building is run and in the work that’s displayed there.

The recent exhibition “Art and Environmental Struggle,” for example, featured works highlighting the effects of climate change.

The show’s centerpiece: a polar bear rug, fashioned from an actual animal that had been previously taxidermized, which the artist had reclaimed and reimagined.

Such thought-provoking shows exemplify what the Johnson has long been, and will continue to be: a center of spirited inquiry and inspiration, on the Hill and beyond.

“It’s stressful in the world right now for so many, and the museum can be a place of respite, of solace, of inward reflection,” Martinez observes. “It can also be a place of great whimsy, delight, and surprise.”

Top: The museum in 2017, when an artwork was projected onto its façade; the Cosmos installation is visible under the overhang at left. (Jason Koski / Cornell University.) All art images courtesy of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.

Published April 17, 2023


  1. Tracy Taylor, Class of 1990

    The Johnson Museum was one of my favorite refuges at Cornell — it’s always included in my Cornell donations because of that. The 5th floor was the Asian Art collection back then (1986-1990) and was my zen place. Always quiet with a stunning view of Cayuga Lake.

  2. Lorena Venegas

    This museum is so special to me! As an undergrad, I was a volunteer docent giving hands-on tours to children and audiences in Spanish. The top floor with Japanese and Chinese art was my favorite. I remember when the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monks created a sand tapestry on the main floor. A treasure for generations.

  3. Leslie Starr, Class of 1976

    It was very exciting to be one of the original student “Guides”at the new museum – combination tour guides and security guards. I remember serving glasses of champagne outside the front door on opening day, and seeing Mr. Johnson and Mr. Pei. It was the best job on campus! I worked at the museum the next three years. Other guides… Nancy, Vas, Preston, Pixie, … wish I could see a picture of all of us then!

    • Judith Schwartz, Class of 1976

      I loved being part of that group of Guides as well. It was my favorite part of my education at Cornell. The experiences as a guide and assistant(s) to the registrar and curator of education shaped my professional life as well. Alum Tom Armstrong, then Director of the Whitney, brought a group of artists to Cornell, and because of my experience at the Johnson Museum, I was admitted to the Whitney Museum Studies internship program (the only undergraduate and the only one who actually had ever worked in the museum). The Arts Awareness Team from the Metropolitan Museum of Art came up to do a workshop with the guides. That led to a summer gig where I trained the Met Team on how to adapt the program to special needs kids affiliated with United Cerebral Palsy of NYC and Westchester. When I was graduating, Director Thomas Leavitt, wrote letters of support for me everywhere I wanted to apply. I agree, it was the best job on campus.

  4. Melissa Yorks, Class of 1975

    I was a transfer student to the Ag school in the fall of 1973 and until now did not know that the museum was brand new then! My memory of the museum was the night I was walking back to my dorm from Uris and there was a magnificent sunset. I knew the view from Johnson would be wonderful. Unfortunately it was just after closing time! Somehow never managed to time it right but the view is great no matter when you’re there.

  5. Jim Gaarder, Class of 1978

    When I first visited Cornell in 1973, a professor my Dad knew gave us a tour. He pointed out an interesting effect with the Johnson Museum, where, if you stood well back in the arts quad and sighted along the sidewalk in front of Sibley Hall, it would line up exactly with the narrow glass opening to the right of the main doors. It was aligned vertically too, giving the impression of the sidewalk continuing right through the museum. Our tour guide mentioned that Cornell tried to widen the sidewalk in front of the Sibley entrance at one point, and students lay down on the site to prevent ruining this effect. Can anyone verify this? And are there any good pictures of this effect, which since has been tempered if not totally eliminated.

  6. Steve Martin, Class of 1967

    As a junior member of Cornell’s development staff it was my duty and pleasure to assist Mr. Johnson in a wheelchair as he visited his namesake museum for what I believe was the first viewing of the completed structure.

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