The Contemporary Study Wing of the Finch College Museum of Art, later called simply the "Contemporary Wing," was established in 1964 by the president of Finch College, Roland De Marco, as an extension the Finch College Museum of Art in New York City.
Its mission was to educate art history students at the Manhattan women's college who were interested in working with contemporary art. DeMarco, himself an art collector, hired Elayne Varian as director and curator of the contemporary wing. DeMarco met Varian in the New York office of the prominent international art dealership Duveen Brothers, where she had worked since the mid-1940s, most recently as an art dealer. Varian received her art education in Chicago, where she studied art history and education at the University of Chicago, and took classes in film at the Bauhaus and in fine art the Art Institute of Chicago. Sensitive to emerging art movements in galleries and studios around the city of New York, as the contemporary wing's curator, Varian quickly established a reputation for thoughtfully conceived, cutting-edge exhibitions which were consistently well-received by the press.
Under Varian, the Contemporary Wing carried out a dual mission of showing work of living artists and educating students and the public about the artwork and museum work in general. Varian used the galleries to provide practical training to students interested in a gallery or museum career throughout its existence. For several years, she also maintained an assistantship position for post-graduate museum professionals to gain experience in the field, many of whom went on to careers in museums across New York State.
The Contemporary Wing's best-known exhibitions formed a series of six shows called
Art in Process, held between 1965 and 1972. Each of the
Art in Processshows took a different medium, including painting, sculpture, collage, conceptual art, installation art, and serial art, and brought the process of art-making into the gallery with the artworks in various ways. For example, for
Art in Process V(1972), the show about installation art, the galleries were open to the public for the entire process of its installation, allowing visitors to watch the works take shape. Another show entitled
Documentation(1968) exhibited artworks with documentation such as artist's notes, sales records, and conservation records, bringing to light the value of record-keeping in the visual arts. Two exhibitions entitled
Projected Artwere also innovative, with the first (1966-1967) bringing experimental films from the cinema to the galleries, and the second (1971) showing artists' processes via footage and slides of artists working. Another show,
Artists' Videotape Performances(1971), involved both screening of and creation of works in the gallery using a range of experiments with recent video technology. The museum also participated in an experimental broadcast of an artwork entitled
Talk Out!by Douglas Davis, in which a telephone in the gallery allowed visitors to participate in its creation while it was broadcast live from Syracuse, NY. Other exhibitions that showcased experimentation in art included
N-Dimensional Space(1970), on holography in art,
Destruction Art(1968), on destructive actions being incorporated into contemporary art-making, and
Schemata 7(1967), a show about the use of environments in contemporary art, whose working title was "Walk-in Sculpture."
Other popular exhibitions at the Contemporary Wing included shows on
Art Deco(1970) and
Art Nouveau(1969). Several shows mined the private collections of prominent contemporary art collectors including Martha Jackson, Betty Parsons, George Rickey, Paul Magriel, Jacques Kaplan, Josephine and Philip Bruno, and Carlo F. Bilotti. A number of exhibitions featured contemporary art from overseas including
Art from Belgium(1965),
Art from Finland(1973),
Seven Swedish Painters(1965), and
Art in Jewelry(1966), which featured mainly international jewelry artists. Retrospective exhibitions of Hans Richter, Hugo Weber, and James Brooks were also held.
Hundreds of contemporary artists were shown at the Contemporary Wing in the eleven years of its existence, including many who came to be leading figures in contemporary art, and some who already were, including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Mel Bochner, Eva Hesse, Lynda Benglis, Bruce Nauman, Robert Morris, Lawrence Weiner, Robert Smithson, Sol Le Witt, Dan Flavin, Philip Pearlstein, and Yayoi Kusama, to name just a few.
The Contemporary Wing and the entire Finch College Museum of Art shut its doors in 1975, when Finch College closed due to lack of funds. The permanent collection was sold at that time, and the proceeds were used to pay Finch College employee salaries. Elayne Varian went on to the position of curator of contemporary art at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida. She died in 1987.