I was still noticing previously overlooked works and nuances within works on my third visit to the Memorial Art Gallery's current exhibit, "It Came from the Vault: Rarely Seen Works from MAG's Collection." I recently spoke with MAG Director of Exhibitions Marie Via about how more than 200 objects included in the show were selected from the more than 12,000 objects in the museum's permanent collection, and about the ways in which both the museum and the community may benefit from an exhibition such as this, which contains a story of obscurity and opportunity for expanded understanding.
"It Came From the Vault" is part of the MAG's centennial celebration, and showcases objects that are for various reasons seldom or never placed in public view. The collection of a museum can be likened to an iceberg, in that only a small percent of the whole is visible at any one time. And like an iceberg, a cross-section through its core will reveal much about the time that has passed since its origination. MAG's holdings were collected under six directors since 1913, each with different tastes, and each of whom lived through vastly different cultural climates.
This exhibition has also "given us a chance to reconnect with donors or with artists who we have lost track of throughout the years," says Via. While she was selecting works for this exhibit, Via invited anyone who works at the gallery to select a seldom-shown work from the collection to be included, providing that they were willing to record themselves speaking about the piece for the exhibit's cell phone tour.
One especially enigmatic, impossibly tiny acrylic painting captivated then-intern Sarah Gerin, whose efforts to research the artist and the painting set in motion a very emotional reunion. "Sunny Ducks" is a surreal photo-real work of impossible intricacy in which a horse-headed man offers a miniature duck that seems to emanate white light, to an another equally glowing duck across a stream. The piece was created in 1973 by Rochester artist Daniel Arthur Allen, shortly before the artist committed suicide.
The chain of inquiry passed from local artist and professor Kathy Calderwood until it reached Allen's former partner, artist Bill Whiting, now a Pennsylvania resident. The quest resulted in reconnections between Allen's family and old friends, Whiting writing a book on his firework years with Allen, and more of Allen's fascinating work emerging from the shadows.
This story reflects the fact that at times, extensive external research is necessary in order to gain information about a work. Curators at MAG also reach out to colleagues at different institutions who specialize in a specific genre, artist, or type of object about which more information is sought.
Works by yesteryear's up-and-coming artists were collected before their makers faded into the background of our cultural memoryscape. Other fascinating works haven't yet found their logical niche in the museum's storylines, says Via. Then there are donated or acquired objects, from antiquity to modern times, about which little or nothing is known. A number of these works were gathered by Exhibitions Assistant Chiyo Ueyama for one of the four themed mini exhibitions within the show.
During the planning stages of the show, Ueyama received help identifying a nameless, illegibly signed abstract work on paper featuring dancing musical language. When MAG librarian Lu Harper uploaded a JPEG of the work to Google images, it matched it as "Opus 18: Last Notes from Endenich" by Tom Phillips.
The origins of other fascinating objects remain in shadowy territory even as the works themselves are pulled into the light. These include a set of wooden ears from larger sculptures of ancient Egypt, and the Chinese "Lotus Shoes," a pair of embroidered slippers so impossibly tiny that the practice of foot-binding gains a more tangible pinch in viewers' minds. "There's really no way of knowing exactly when they were made, or what part of China they came from, because [footbinding] was such a widespread custom," says Via.
In another room, a gorgeously lush horse cover is spread over a low platform. While researching the work, Curator of European Art Nancy Norwood contacted a colleague who specializes in Russian art, who was able to identify it as a gift from the Emir of Bukhara to the Russian royal family sometime before 1917, when the Czar was overthrown. The pattern of the textile helped her identify the region of its origin, says Via.
During the course of putting the show together, Via sought more information about Paul S. Berry, the artist who painted "Fishwife," which was a purchase made during the Rochester-Finger Lakes exhibition in the 1950's. One of the gallery's volunteers was the mother-in-law of the artist's daughter, who then brought her mother into the conversation to provide more information on what turned out to be an atypical painting for Berry. During the run of the show visitors have the opportunity to provide any information they might have about stubbornly mysterious works and artists.
An exhibition such as this one also affords the opportunity to learn more about our ever-changing culture. For example, when researching Janina Konarska's "Tennis," a 1931 woodcut print that shows doubles in action with long shadows upon the court, curators learned that the Polish artist won a silver medal back in 1932, back when the Olympic Games included an art competition.