Archive for Sunday, January 19, 2003

Treasure house on the prairie

Spencer Museum of Art celebrates 25 years of bringing gems to the public

January 19, 2003


Twenty-five years ago last fall, Doug Tilghman was balancing a precious bronze Buddha on a contraption of pipes and wooden planks.

His precarious mission was to get the ancient statue down a flight of stairs in Spooner Hall and into a rental truck en route to the brand new Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art, just a few blocks away.

Unusually hands-on work for the assistant director of an art museum, but that's the way the Spencer was filled -- one piece at a time by the muscle and patience of its staff. No small task when the collection numbered in the ballpark of 17,000 pieces.

"There was no elevator. We used planks and pry bars and just brute force," Tilghman said. "When we got to Spencer, we had a mechanical lift and a huge freight elevator. It was like moving from the 19th century to the 20th."

After months of gingerly transporting and installing thousands of paintings, sculptures, pottery, photographs, textiles, prints and other art objects whose origins spanned the globe and centuries, the museum staff welcomed the public for its first look at the treasures inside the new stronghold.

"It is a gem of a museum," Seymour Slive, the director of Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum, said during the Spencer's inaugural address in 1978. "Your plans, your dreams have been realized. I would be less than honest if I did not tell you I am a bit green with envy."

Since then, the museum's collection has swelled to 22,000 pieces, and what seemed then to be an endless amount of space is packed to overflowing. A steady stream of past student assistants and curators schooled at the Spencer have gone on to curate and direct some of the most prestigious museums in the country. And the Spencer's focus has turned a bit more outward since the first days, when building the collection and getting the facility in order was paramount.

But a few of the people who were present at the creation still work at KU. Some even continue to toil in the Spencer's quiet halls, where devoted patrons come to revisit art that awes them and new faces come to absorb the abundant beauty for the very first time.

A celebration

"It's hard to believe it's been 25 years," said assistant director Carolyn Chinn Lewis, who began her job at the new museum a few months after it opened in 1978. "I've kind of grown up here."

She and Janet Dreiling, who has been registrar of KU's art collection since before it moved to the Spencer, organized the museum's 25th anniversary exhibition, which is on display through March 30 in the White Gallery.

Patrons gather outside Kansas University&squot;s Helen Foresman Spencer
Museum of Art for the museum&squot;s grand opening gala on Jan. 17, 1978.
In his inaugural address, Seymour Slive, then-director of Harvard
University&squot;s Fogg Art Museum, called the Spencer "a gem of a
museum." The Spencer celebrates its 25th birthday this year.

Patrons gather outside Kansas University's Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art for the museum's grand opening gala on Jan. 17, 1978. In his inaugural address, Seymour Slive, then-director of Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum, called the Spencer "a gem of a museum." The Spencer celebrates its 25th birthday this year.

It's not necessarily a best-of-the-best exhibition. Rather, all past and present curators and directors were invited to choose their favorite works acquired during their time at the museum. The result is a mix of ancient and modern, two-dimensional and three-dimensional -- and a collection of written tributes that time and again credits the people responsible for obtaining and caring for the art.

The Spencer's first director, Charles Eldredge, who went on to serve as director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art before returning to KU as the Hall Family Foundation Distinguished Professor of American Art and Culture, wrote that his No. 1 all-time acquisition was the museum staff:

"I don't boast of many talents, except for the ability to recognize talent in others. And I was very good, and very lucky, in picking the colleagues who launched this project 25 years ago."

Nothing impossible

Those Spencer pioneers had their work cut out for them.

Take Mark Roeyer. Imagine being charged with hanging every painting, displaying every object safely and at its best vantage point for viewing, ensuring light falls in just the right way and, for that matter, that all the light bulbs work. Those are Roeyer's memories of his days at the Spencer.

What: Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art's 25th birthday celebrationWhen: 5 p.m.-9 p.m. SaturdayWhere: Spencer Museum of ArtDetails: Museum director Andrea Norris and others will share reminiscences beginning about 7 p.m. Afterward, guests may enjoy birthday cake and indie rock music by Lash Canino until 9 p.m.

Roeyer, now a contracts specialist at KU Center for Research, Inc., was the exhibits designer who got the museum in order for its opening a quarter-century ago.

"We worked as many as 18 hours a day during the months of October, November and December and opened the building on Jan. 17," he said. "Then we immediately began to revise the whole thing."

Such is the flux at a museum, where touring exhibitions and items from the permanent collection floating in and out of storage make for an ever-changing geography.

Though his was a challenging, labor-intensive job, the age and energy of the early staff -- most members were in their 20s -- made the Spencer an exciting place to work, Roeyer said.

"My line about the people at the Spencer is they were all young enough that they didn't know the word impossible," he said. "We did things with a really incredibly small staff on a shoestring budget that normal people in the museum world wouldn't attempt. And we did it successfully."

1928 - The 5,000-piece art collection Kansas City art collector Sallie Casey Thayer donated to Kansas University in 1917 is formally dedicated. Among the collection is "Cloud Shadows," the 1890 Winslow Homer painting shown above.1975 - KU alumna Helen Foresman Spencer gives the university $4.5 million to construct a building that will house the art museum, art history department and an art library. It's the largest single gift the university has received to date.1978 - The Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art opens its doors to the public on Jan. 17. The neo-classical structure cost $5 million to build and continues to house the only comprehensive art collection in Kansas.2003 - The museum celebrates the 25th anniversary of its building, the 75th anniversary of the university's art collection, with a party and exhibition at the Spencer. "Around the Cake," the 1962 painting by Wayne Thiebaud, is the signature piece in the exhibition. Having outgrown its space, the museum looks to double its size, a possibility shown in a rendering by Polshek Partnership Architects of New York.

New digs

Of course, they had a great canvas to start with.

Before the big move, the collection was crammed into Spooner Hall, stored in the basement of Strong Hall and hanging in faculty offices across campus. Its birth had occurred 50 years prior to the Spencer opening, when Kansas City art collector Sallie Casey Thayer's donation of some 5,000 pieces was officially dedicated, forming the core of KU's art collection.

In 1975, Kansas Citian Helen Foresman Spencer gave $4.5 million to erect a building that would house the art museum, the art history department and an art library. At the time, it was the largest gift ever received by the university.

The monumental, neo-classical museum, built of Indiana limestone and granite, remains the only comprehensive college art museum in the state.

"It's generally accepted as one of the best 10 college art museums in the country," said Andrea Norris, the museum's director since 1988.

Marilyn Stokstad, distinguished professor emerita of art history who directed the museum from 1961-1967 in Spooner, helped develop the art history department in the early days of the Spencer, expanding it to a Ph.D. program and securing a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for teaching in the museum.

"We guaranteed we would have faculty and students using the museum right at the very beginning. I think that's helped set a tone," she said.

In fact, the educational aspect of the museum is what makes it so enticing to longtime contributors, Norris said. It's a big draw for Barbara Buck, who's been a docent with the university art collection since 1969.

"You just have to keep learning all the time. It's good for everybody," she said. "I find the experience the young people have especially -- we hope -- will certainly enable them to look at the world with new eyes."

As for the museum itself, the coming decades likely will bring changes that will cause everyone to view it with new eyes. One of the goals of KU First, the university's current fund-raising campaign, is to generate enough money to double the museum's capacity.

So years from now, at a dedication ceremony for the new addition, the vision that Helen Foresman Spencer expressed at the museum's original opening will still ring true:

"What was once a dream has now become a reality. May it safeguard the treasures it displays and deepen the appreciation of art.".

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