Ann Allen

Image credit: L. Barry Heatherington.
Portrait of Ann Allen at the 2016 Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT Gala.

A Special Marriage: Art and Science

“Arts is another word for oxygen,” according to Ann Allen, and it has been a consistent and critical part of her life for as long as she can remember. Graduating with a BA in English literature from the University of New Hampshire, Ann was always engaged in the arts, be it music, theater, literature or the visual arts. She went on to study art history at Wellesley College, became a gallery speaker in the college’s museum and later received an MA in art history from Boston University.

While her lifelong passion and commitment to the arts are obvious, her 64-year connection to MIT, an institution known for its stellar science and engineering programs, is not well known. While working as the advertising manager at Harvard University Press, Ann met graduate student Jonathan Allen, and they later married in 1960. He went on to earn a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT in 1968 and never left. Jonathan, who had a natural appreciation for the arts, became director of MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics in 1981 and served in that role until his passing in 2000.

His passion for computer science matched Ann’s love for the arts and sparked a mutual desire to learn and love together. While Jonathan worked in the labs, Ann was busy exploring and teaching the arts. She has served as a member of the Council for the Arts at MIT (CAMIT, of which she is still a member) and as an adjunct lecturer at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for more than 30 years, where she welcomed visitors in groups through a guided learning experience, “Looking Together.” She also taught private classes every semester, and there was always a group from MIT.

Supporting the Arts at MIT

Today, Ann is proud to see the growth of the arts at MIT, and is a committed arts ambassador for the Institute. She frequently astonishes inquirers, “Absolutely MIT includes the arts! They collect it, teach it, exhibit it, perform it, and even create it!” Ann knows best what the arts at MIT have to offer, from the Student Lending Art Program at the List Visual Arts Center to the work of the arts scholars and student grant programs supported by CAMIT, and from the vital and cross-disciplinary work of the Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) to the dynamic exhibitions at the MIT Museum.

Ann’s engagement with the arts at MIT over the course of her lifetime has motivated her to step up and support two areas that are personally meaningful. Her dedication to CAST stems from the Center’s success in pushing the boundaries of art and science in new ways. She is enthusiastic about the focused artist residencies that can happen only at MIT, as well as the MIT Sounding experimental music series and cross-disciplinary classes taught by science and engineering faculty alongside artists.

Ann recognizes that art and artistic creation continue to evolve—and that MIT plays a critical role in helping to develop the art of the future. In response to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s third and final grant to continue the Center’s work, Ann feels strongly that her personal commitment to the Center will help garner additional support from the larger MIT community.

Her recent commitment to the MIT Museum at Kendall Square to name the Collections Workshop was a meaningful and thoughtful decision. She worked on her first exhibition as an associate curator for a large photography show at the Museum in 1989, in recognition of the 150th anniversary of photography. Ann recalls that it was a great learning experience that enabled her to stay connected to the Museum, its staff, and its unique science and art collections.

With the MIT Museum’s transformational move to Kendall Square approaching, Ann reflected on the role of museums and felt that it was time to celebrate her years of teaching and love of both science and art. The Collections Workshop will be a place of teaching and exploration using science and art objects from the Museum’s varied collections. The Workshop is also a living example of the MIT motto: mens et manus, or mind and hand. “My goal for this gift,” Ann explains, “is to reach new horizons with a new space to explore approaches and techniques with the objects themselves and help develop new ways to teach and to learn. I envision the Workshop to be a place abuzz with people of all ages, who are open to playing with curiosity, challenge and discovery. The new MIT Museum at Kendall will be unique and experimental in this way.”

Reflecting on her honorary membership of the MIT Alumni Association and her lifelong connection to the Institute, Ann notes that her career as a lecturer in art history seemed poles apart from Jonathan’s science career, but that over the years the two fields have moved closer together and are truly inseparable now. “When Jonathan prepared his lectures toward the end of his life,” she recalls, “he began asking me for certain art slides to help illustrate scientific phenomena. It was at that point, we had truly bonded… nearly 40 years of art and science. We surprised ourselves.”