The Icon Museum and Study Center Appoints Justin Willson as its New Curator

The appointment is effective February 2024.

By: Dec. 05, 2023
The Icon Museum and Study Center Appoints Justin Willson as its New Curator
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After a national search, The Icon Museum and Study Center has appointed Justin Willson as its new curator, effective February 2024. Justin is a specialist in late Byzantine and early Russian art with a doctorate from the Department of Art & Archaeology at Princeton University. His interests range widely from connoisseurship to the history of icons in Byzantium and the Slavic world with a special focus on Muscovy. 

“Justin arrives at a pivotal point in our museum’s history as our recently renamed institution enters a renewed phase. He brings a wonderful vision and strong academic background, as well as a fresh and energetic perspective to interpreting and presenting our collection,” said Simon Morsink, director of the Museum.  “He will play an important role in shaping the leading institute for icons and Eastern Christian art in the USA.  In addition to curator, he will also spearhead the Study Center, which will be an essential part of the new Museum as we aim to connect to global audiences.”

Justin comes to the Icon Museum & Study Center from the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) where he has been the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Art History Leadership since September 2022. At the CMA Justin facilitated the Joint Program in Art History with the Department of Art History & Art at Case Western Reserve University, working closely with art history MA and PhD graduate students.

Justin earned his PhD in the Department of Art & Archaeology at Princeton University in 2021, writing a dissertation on the art of early Muscovy with a focus on icons, frescoes and illuminated manuscripts. During his graduate training, Justin studied on a Fulbright Scholarship in the Division of Old Russian Art at Moscow State University, visiting icon and manuscript collections across Russia. Justin has also conducted fieldwork in Ukraine, Greece, North Macedonia, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, and in collections and manuscript archives in Western Europe and the United States.

A committed educator, Justin has taught advanced undergraduate and graduate courses on Early East Slavic Art, Byzantine Art and Ancient American Art at Case Western Reserve University and Princeton University. Prior to his graduate training, he taught high school literature and ran a neighborhood rehabilitation nonprofit in Albany, Georgia. Justin seeks to instill a love for art in museum visitors, students, and community leaders, revealing how beauty, wonder and history play an essential role in shaping our shared experience.

Justin’s research spans the Byzantine and early modern Slavic world, with a particular attention on the evolution of concepts of the image across time and within various religious communities. His current book project, The Moods of Early Russian Art, argues for a crucial change in artistic practice within early Muscovite society. In the sixteenth century, the Church sought to regulate iconography and workshops, which for centuries had largely been controlled by lay masters and their apprentices. Justin is also editing a handbook of primary sources, The Visual Culture of Late Byzantium and the Early Modern Orthodox World (c.1350- c.1669), under contract with Cambridge University Press. This sourcebook will introduce many new texts to an English readership, fostering the next generation of research on art within the wide-flung communities of global early modern Orthodoxy.

“I am thrilled to join the wonderful staff at the IM+SC,” says WIllson. “In this new phase of the Museum’s history, I see tremendous opportunity for developing programs for the Study Center, increasing the visibility and accessibility of the collection, partnering with area universities and community stakeholders, and collaborating on exhibitions which show the breadth of the tradition of icon painting and its integral role in the history of art.”

“Over the last three decades, there have been major exhibitions of icons from key countries and sites of the Orthodox world (including Greece, Moscow and Mount Sinai), sometimes to the exclusion of objects in North American collections,” continued Justin. “At a time of increased precarity in much of the Orthodox world and in the wake of Putin’s awful war against Ukraine, highlighting the objects available in North America would send a powerful message to the general public: the resources for meaningful cultural understanding are already here, hiding in plain sight. Unfortunately, the linguistic and historical tools for research on the visual traditions of the Slavic world, to say nothing of places like the Caucuses or Ethiopia, are often simply not widely available to university students in the US. The Museum, with its Study Center and Library, is in an excellent position to serve as a hub promoting the study of Eastern Christian culture.”


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