SARASOTA, Fla. — On a recent Wednesday evening, as rock music poured through the manicured gardens of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art here, a line of young people waited to see the artist Anne Patterson’s “Pathless Woods,” an installation that allows visitors to wander through a sea of brightly colored hanging ribbons.
For some, the evening visit may not have been their only contact with the piece: Twelve students from Florida State University and several nearby schools had worked with 71 volunteers to install the 8,472 ribbons over two weeks.
“It took around 24 miles of ribbon to hang the piece,” recalled Matthew McLendon, the former Ringling curator of modern art, who worked with the artist to involve students in the project. He was recently named director at the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia.
Putting students and volunteers together “allowed for a great interplay between the generations,” Mr. McLendon said.
The monthly Ringling Underground is an evening of music, art and food. But the Ringling, which is under the stewardship of Florida State University, is not unique. Across the country, museums associated with universities are organizing social events: The Princeton University Art Museum in New Jersey holds evenings when graduate students meet curators, for example. Beyond that, museums directors are seeking ways students can play a role in curating and experiencing artworks.
At the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Me., the married co-directors, Frank and Anne Goodyear, oversaw 11 exhibitions last year, and half of those were jointly curated by professors and students. A handful were organized by students working with mentors.
Most recently, Virginia Crow, a Bowdoin junior majoring in visual arts and Asian studies, and Michael Amano, a senior majoring in neuroscience, oversaw an exhibition, “Perspectives From Postwar Hiroshima: Chuzo Tamotzu, Children’s Drawings, and the Art of Resolution.” For Mr. Amano, the experience helped focus his interest in the study of psychological trauma, and its ability to pass from parents to their children and future generations. It also made him aware of “the power of art to facilitate connections between complete strangers,” he said.
The exhibition relied on a series of drawings by child survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, that had been commissioned in the 1950s by Mr. Tamotzu, a Japanese artist. He had also sought drawings by children in Santa Fe, N.M., near Los Alamos, where the bomb was built. A private collector lent the Bowdoin museum the drawings from Hiroshima, and Mr. Amano, who is of Japanese heritage, with no experience in curating, went to Japan and interviewed some of the young artists — now in their 70s — who had drawn the pictures. He also made videos with them and wrote the exhibition’s wall labels.
Student participation has gone beyond shows that the students curate individually. When the Bowdoin museum had the recent opportunity to borrow vintage photographs by Robert Frank for an exhibition, “we went to the photography professor Michael Kolster and wondered how we could engage the students,” Mr. Goodyear said. “He had a class on documentary photography, and so part of his class became the curation of the show.”
That interplay between the museums and the students reflects the distance that university museums have come from the era when they were, as Ms. Goodyear put it, “jewel boxes.”
James Steward, director of the Princeton museum, recalled the vision for the institution’s role: “Our aim was in part to make it a laboratory for future art historians. At that time, we did not view visitor numbers as a meaningful measure of our impact. We were trying to bring the world to the remote school. But it is different today.”
Not every college can do what Princeton has with its $5 million budget to buy art. “But we can be international,” Mr. Steward said. “It is more important on a world campus. For example, the museum is now trying to build its collection of Indian art, and particularly as India’s place in the world is growing.”
He added, “We wanted to respond to the increased interest in the field, both on and off campus.”
Mr. Steward’s goal has been to see the museum connect more with the university and establish itself as a resource for the wider public. One metric of success has been increased attendance. Today the Princeton museum draws about 206,000 visitors annually, compared with 90,000 throughout the 1990s. As part of its effort to involve students more directly, it now brings in up to 24 paid interns a year, a number that has increased gradually since Mr. Steward took over in 2009.
“The number of courses using the museum or the collection has grown by 700 percent since 2009,” Mr. Steward said.
Attendance at the Ringling is up as well. Tourists to Sarasota are one component, but student attendance rose to 18,170 in the last academic year, from 11,850 four years ago, according to Steven High, the museum’s executive director. At Bowdoin, too, student attendance is healthy. “Last year we had 2,500 students visit, and there are 1,800 students at Bowdoin,” Ms. Goodyear said.
“Today, museums themselves are the classrooms and the laboratories of creativity,” she added. “They are the training ground for future generations. We are addressing the question of why humanities matter. The museum is part of the college, and it is important that it be engaged with the college. It is a partner in developing a liberal arts education and curriculum.”
Colleges are also trying to add courses involving the museums to their class menus. The Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University is making an effort to let students integrate archaeology and technology by studying art in a virtual environment, said David A. Brenneman, the museum’s director. Ph.D. candidates in informatics have worked on a computer program that allows this museum’s visitors to try to reconstruct Praxiteles’ statue of the Resting Satyr, now armless and legless.
Alison Gass, the chief curator for the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford, invited Trevor Paglen to be an artist in residence. Working with the Stanford Vision Lab as well as with the Center for Internet and Society at the university’s law school, he has been translating his interest in government surveillance and spy technology into artworks.
“I try and think about what university museums have, or have access to, that is unique, and in this case Stanford has extraordinary programs in artificial intelligence research,” Ms. Gass said. “They make it possible to think about the world through different disciplines. Trevor wanted to look at the impact of artificial intelligence technology on the visual field, so I invited him to spend time at Stanford.”
The concept of relating the university museum more to campus life can take many shapes. What is valuable, some curators say, is making both the artwork and the museum projects important to the student body. That even goes to the selection of exhibitions.
As Mr. McLendon said: “When I was growing up gay in rural Florida, there were no positive gay characters, and Madonna was the only one talking about it. If you just see work made by old dead white people, it has universal themes, but they are not necessarily accessible to you. But if you see the work of Mickalene Thomas, the African-American artist, it deals with the same themes, and it is an entree into the other work.”