Smart art: Everyone can study at universities’ art collections and exhibits

By Stacey Rynders - Photo by Cheryl Ungar

Styling: Stacey Rynders - Photo by Cheryl Ungar

Photography: Stacey Rynders - Photo by Cheryl Ungar

March 30, 2006

In contrast to the steadfast popularity of the Saint Louis Art Museum and gallery districts such as Washington Avenue, the visual art collections at regional college campuses maintain a low profile. Yet some of St. Louis’ most varied permanent collections and rotating exhibitions can be found at these academic institutions. Whether they focus on modern, religious, early American or regional art, by artists famous or unknown, all are intended to enrich scholars and the general public alike.

Washington University and its Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum just might raise the profile of local college art museums this fall. The completion of the museum’s new home will bring fresh interest in the university’s tremendous modern-art collection, which will be displayed permanently for the first time. Founded in 1881 and formerly known as the Washington University Gallery of Art, the Kemper Museum will be housed in one of two buildings that are part of the new Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning modernist architect Fumihiko Maki, a former faculty member.

As the Kemper Museum and the schools of architecture and art merged under one umbrella, the Sam Fox School “is dedicated to the creation, study and exhibition of multidisciplinary and collaborative work,” according to the museum’s Web site. The museum is set to open in October, and Sabine Eckmann, chief curator and director of the Kemper Museum, hopes to take advantage of the regional success of merging modern architecture with modern art. The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis did it, as did The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Now, after five years of opening and closing to accommodate construction, the Kemper Museum hopes to follow suit.

“I think it’s an asset to everybody,” said Eckmann. “It’s important to open contemporary and modern subjects and establish discourses. I think the museum should be a public face of the school and bring up topics discussed internally.”

The collection includes works by major international artists such as George Caleb Bingham, Thomas Cole, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Jackson Pollock and Barbara Kruger. Visitors can expect to view a significant number of new pieces “up to the 21st century,” said Eckmann. “There was some effort to make sure these collections don’t overlap [with other regional museums],” she said. “I would say the collections complement each other.”

Indeed, Saint Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art is also high on the national radar for the quality and significance of its contemporary exhibitions, but for different reasons. Established in 1993, MOCRA was “the world’s first museum dedicated to the ongoing dialogue between contemporary artists and the world’s faith traditions,” according to its brochure.

With a small but growing permanent collection of about 60 pieces, MOCRA annually shows three exhibits in which international issues are tackled to critical acclaim. “When you have a name like ours, you have to prove yourself,” said the Rev. Terrence Dempsey, MOCRA’s founding director.

MOCRA has offered spiritually moving exhibits such as the installation “Paranirvana” by Lewis DeSoto that includes inflating and deflating the 25-foot-long nylon balloon image of the sleeping Buddha. This September, the popular “Andy Warhol: Silver Clouds” exhibit returns. The installation allows guests to interact with silver human-sized, pillow-shaped balloons made airborne by fans and left to move on their own accord. Dempsey said that he has seen cancer patients dance among them, small children light up at the sight of them and visitors lie entranced on the floor beneath them.

“Many students haven’t been exposed to the visual arts,” said Dempsey. “It is important to not make art this strange, forbidding opportunity. It opens up to them a world that transcends time and geography.”

The focus shifts again at the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Founded by business leaders as a subscription library that would be a repository of both literature and art for the frontier city, the Mercantile Library has collections that run the gamut from local historical records to portraits of great Americans. The sculpture that put St. Louis on the international art map in the 19th century is housed in one of its main study areas, among a collection of 19th- and 20th-century art: It is “Beatrice Cenci,” a statue by Harriet Hosmer, the first American woman to study in Rome and maintain a studio there.

Wayman Crow – a founder of both Washington University and the Mercantile Library, which was located Downtown until it moved to UMSL in 1999 – was one of Hosmer’s greatest supporters. Crow convinced a friend to commission a piece from the young artist, and the result was her marble masterpiece depicting a young Italian woman on the eve of her execution. “St. Louis just went crazy when it arrived,” said Julie Dunn-Morton, art curator at the Mercantile Library.

“We’ve never had a problem with students and our artwork, which delights and amazes me,” said Dunn-Morton of the readily accessible way in which the pieces are displayed. “The students appreciate the environment we are able to create. About eight out of every 10 students are as interested in the art as the people on the tours.”

At Webster University, accessibility is also paramount. It houses a portion of its permanent collection in its campus library. “It’s an interesting idea to put works of art in place for people to see and interpret, where it’s part of life without being in a museum,” said Tom Lang, chair of Webster’s art department. “It enriches people’s lives.

“Students should take for granted that there are wonderful things here on campus; it should be seen as quite ordinary,” said Lang, who credits all the university’s collection to generous donors.

In addition to their permanent collections, universities often have galleries that expose students and community members to rotating exhibits. At UMSL, Gallery 210 hosts contemporary art exhibits by national and local artists; students and faculty have their own display galleries as well.

The Meramec Art Gallery in the St. Louis Community College system alternates between student or faculty shows and exhibits of a national scope, such as last fall’s surveys of ceramics from Arizona and photographs of Manhattan and
Ground Zero.

The 4-year-old Schmidt Art Center on the Southwestern Illinois College campus in Belleville combines its exhibits of work by high schoolers, college students and professional St. Louis artists with educational activities like hands-on workshops for children and lectures for aspiring artists.

“It’s about finding artists that wouldn’t be seen – or should be seen – in St. Louis,” said Lang of the exhibits at Webster’s Cecile R. Hunt Gallery, which features students and artists from many of its international campuses.

In contrast, the Fontbonne University Gallery of Art’s exhibition space is a platform for students and primarily local artists, said Jody Barksdale, gallery director. “The students get a great education from having a body of contemporary work that can be used in their class,” said Barksdale, who is currently trying to focus exhibitions on emerging artists as well as continuing with student shows. “Student shows are wonderful,” she said. “I get impressed by my students’ exhibitions.”

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