Margaret Haviland had the opportunity to speak with Will Coleman about his journey from his days as a student at Westfield Friends School to his life today.
MH: Tell me briefly about your journey from Westfield Friends to today.
WC: Westfield Friends, which I attended from Kindergarten through 7th grade as a member of the class of ‘99, shaped my life in unexpected ways and instilled empathy. I’m now a curator and art historian specializing in 19th-century American landscape art. As Director of Collections & Exhibitions for The Olana Partnership, I oversee the curatorial and research enterprises for the 90,000 object permanent collection and iconic buildings of the artist Frederic Edwin Church’s 250-acre estate in Hudson, New York, working closely with the New York State Parks system.
This has been a dream job after a winding path through teaching and museums: sharing the stories of a global collection of art and artifacts, formed and used by one of the most interesting creative minds of the 19th century, with diverse 21st-century audiences. There are unique opportunities here to understand the values of the past and the possibilities of the future.
After 7th grade, my family moved to Cambridge, Mass., where I attended a mainstream independent school that was quite a bit less nurturing than WFS. Upon graduation, I promptly returned to the Philadelphia area and Quaker education to attend Haverford College. I studied art history there and in a master’s at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, followed by a master’s in musicology at Oxford and completed my formal studies with a Ph.D. in art history at Berkeley in 2015. While there was a fair bit of pure research and teaching along the way, the social role and potential wider impact of museums long beckoned so I’m delighted to have landed at a particularly unique American museum.
MH: What are the two or three events, people, experiences you most remember from your Westfield years?
WC: Principal Bill Probsting’s regular art lectures to the full school community are still fresh in mind and had a lasting impact. I can see his laser pointer tracing out the diagonals of a painting’s composition from a good old fashioned slide tray in the auditorium. Other memories include Mrs. Chesson’s 6th-grade class visit to a mosque during Ramadan, where the kind and welcoming members of the community prepared a lunch for us they could not enjoy themselves at that time of day. Long before it was fashionable, that class had a powerful inoculation against the racism and xenophobia of the early 2000s.
I have warm memories of the physical campus and appreciate the incredible socio-cultural diversity of my class of 24 students. There are clear and fond memories of the meetinghouse, where I spent Sundays too as a member of the First Day School class. I have continued to be involved in Quaker organizations as a member of Moorestown Monthly Meeting and of the Advisory Committee of the Corporation of Haverford College. Intriguingly, there’s lots of Quaker history close at hand in this neck of the woods. Hudson, NY was founded by Quakers and still has a vibrant community.
MH: How do the values you learned in school continue to shape your life and the way you make choices for yourself?
WC: The values that Westfield instilled are so deep-seated and so central to my character that it’s a challenge to spell them out. I learned compassionate awareness of my own privilege in a remarkably diverse community, even then, patience in decision making, working to make sure every voice is heard because there is that of God in all, and the overarching mission of practicing peace and tolerance.
MH: What do you hope for Westfield students today?
WC: I hope that they can return to in-person learning in a difficult time because there is no substitute for the physical environment I remember so fondly. Until then, I hope that the technological tools will help students to enjoy a powerful sense of community like I experienced, even if remotely.
MH: What do you hope for Westfield alums as they think about Westfield today?
WC: I am still in touch with some friends from Westfield, and would like to be in touch with more. There have been unexpected encounters in years since, like bumping into Andrea Horbinski ‘99 in the stacks of the central library at Berkeley, where it turned out she was pursuing a Ph.D. in East Asian Studies. I am proud to see peers going on to fulfilling careers of purpose. Westfield is precious for the rare intimacy that makes it potentially fragile, even in the best of times, and deserves our special care in 2020. It is really the perfect school environment imaginable for a certain kind of learner and I’m so grateful that my sister Anne ‘01 and I had the ability to grow in that special community.