February 2012

And the Oscar goes to…

This upcoming Sunday, February 26th, millions of people worldwide will turn their televisions on to catch a glimpse of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood on the broadcast of the 84th annual Academy Awards.

Who will take home the Oscar?

In May of 1936, staff of the University Gallery wondered, “who would take home our Oscar?

Press book clippings reveal a story that could surely rival any award-nominated screenplay – a plotline of crime and betrayal in a gallery caper that went unsolved. The leading role in this gallery mystery was in fact not an award… but a cat.

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Assistant to the President, Malcolm Willey, who served as chairman of the Fine Arts Committee, was none too pleased about the theft, and penned a letter to the MN Daily that articulated his disappointment in the incident:

It is perhaps appropriate to claim some of the space in a column called ‘Over the Back Fence’ to talk about cats. Seriously, may I call to attention the implications that are attached to the theft from the Fine Arts Room last week of the wood carving of a kitten. The value of the piece is not the fact of major importance – $12.00 or $15.00, although it is surprising that anyone would steel a mere decorative object worth even this amount. The disappearance of the carving would be easier to understand if it did have more value. I can only assume that some thoughtless person, intrigued by the whimsicality of the piece, carried it off for display elsewhere. The University has tried in the Fine Arts Room to make available to the students a beautiful room that could be enjoyed with informality in moments of leisure. There have been large numbers of students enjoying the room as shown by its use. They have enjoyed the room freely and without anyone standing over them. If things are stolen, it is necessary to have the room supervised constantly. This defeats part of its purpose and violates the spirit under which it has been operated. Someone’s thoughtlessness or disregard of the fact that this carving was after all the property of the University, destroys the privileges that the many students have been given. The only hope is that the carving will be returned. It is an amusing piece and belongs in the room where all students can see and enjoy it. My hope in writing is that someone who did not think of the really serious aspects of a seemingly harmless prank, will read this letter and on second thought, realize how unfair he has been to the students – and then that Oscar will thereupon find his way back to the Fine Arts Room.”

As a result of the incident, a hostess system was implemented wherein volunteers from the Faculty Womens club staffed the Fine Arts Room.

WAM Urban Myth Buster

For many years, it has been known, as the story goes, that one of WAM’s Georgia O’Keeffe paintings, Oriental Poppies, “may have been selected for purchase by popular vote.” So reads the label that describes this painting, currently on display in WAM’s Woodhouse Gallery.

The story, told by WAM tour guides, and believed by staff and visitors for many years, unfolds simply like this: An exhibition of the work of artists represented by gallery owner and dealer Alfred Stieglitz was held at the gallery in 1937. Visitors to the exhibit voted for their favorite work. Oriental Poppies won.

This story… however… is a myth.

Pressbook_1934-1937_Stieglitz.jpgIn February of 1937, the Gallery did exhibit a Stieglitz show, which showcased the “famous five” from his gallery at An American Place – Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, and Marsden Hartley. Amongst the 40 or so canvases in the exhibit was Oriental Poppies by O’Keeffe. There was, however, no popular vote of the visitors to select a piece to be purchased by the University.

A vote did take place, however, amongst the members of the Fine Arts Committee, a body on campus that oversaw the gallery and other issues related to the arts on campus. Their unanimous vote was an agreement to make a formal request to President Lotus Coffman to purchase Oriental Poppies. Correspondence found within the folder titled, “Fine Arts Committee” in Box 110 of the WAM collection reveals the details behind the acquisition of the painting upon the insistence of the Committee.

In a February 19, 1937 correspondence from Malcolm Willey to President Coffman, Willey outlines a meeting of the Fine Arts Committee:

The Fine Arts Committee held a meeting this noon to discuss, among other matters, the purchase of fine arts material. The Committee believes the University should choose its purchases carefully, especially those that involve any considerable sum of money. The members present were unanimous in urging that the University acquire one painting from the collection sent here for exhibition recently by Mr. Alfred Stieglitz. The artists represented in the group of five are all of outstanding distinction. There were several canvasses that would be an asset to any gallery, anywhere. The committee, after careful discussion, voted unanimously to recommend the purchase, if at all possible, of Poppies by Georgia O’Keeffe. The one argument raised against this during the discussion is the fact that the University does own one painting by her. However, the two are of different periods; moreover, her place in contemporary art is such that there is little risk in buying her work. The list price (for insurance purchases) of this canvas is $4,000. It can be had for 33 1/3 per cent discount, or $2666.67. This is a greater sum than we have ever spent for a painting, yet good work by distinguished artists command high prices. Those who favored this acquisition are: Professor Burton, Professor Minnich, Professor Harriet Goldstein, Professor R. C. Jones, and Professor David Robb. I, personally, have no doubt in my mind concerning the value to be received in this picture at the quoted price. It is a powerful painting and exceedingly decorative. It has nothing of the abstract or any other qualities that make it difficult to understand and enjoy. It is only because there is, potentially, some possibility of criticism of the University in purchasing a painting at this price that I raise the question at all with you. If you feel there is no reason for hesitating, I would instantly join the others in their recommendation.”

Coffman replies to Willey on February 20th, 1937 and indicated that he agreed that the University should have the painting “but as cheaply as possible.

Willey wrote back to Coffman on February 24th, 1937, “Mrs. Lawrence is to see if this can be had for $2500 flat.

On February 25th, 1937, Willey wrote to Ruth Lawrence, “With the approval of President Coffman, I am asking Mr. Middlebrook to make available the sum of $2500 to be placed in the budget of the University Art Gallery for the purchase of one or more original works of art.

(Middlebrook was the University’s comptroller.)

Pressbook_1934-1937_Vote3.jpgIn February of 1936, one year prior to the mythologized 1937 Stieglitz show, the gallery mounted an exhibit titled, “The Twentieth Century,” which contained representative examples of contemporary works loaned to the gallery, some of which included artworks lent by Stieglitz.

It is in conjunction with this February 1936 twentieth century exhibit that there was a vote, “planned to discover student taste.” As the clipped MN Daily articles contained in the University Gallery press books indicated, “Each day a new vote is taken in the gallery on the Twentieth Century exhibit and at the conclusion of the show votes will be tabulated. Anyone who visits the gallery is eligible to vote and may do so on the card beside each painting.

O’Keeffe’s piece, New Mexico Landscape won first place in the three-week contest.

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While there is partial truth to this myth – that a vote was involved in selection and purchase of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Oriental Poppies – it was a unanimous recommendation of the Fine Arts Committee in 1937, and not a democratic visitor vote, that resulted in the acquisition of the painting.

Regardless of the specifics, what these two February exhibits clearly show is the popp-ularity of Georgia O’Keeffe at the University of Minnesota.

Love Doors

LoveDoor.jpgThe Love Doors Contest
Sponsored by the Weisman Art Museum and Comstock 
Hall –

The Weisman Art Museum and Comstock Hall are sponsoring a door decorating contest to coincide with Valentine’s Day in conjunction with the museum’s exhibition, Deck the Halls. Personalize your door with designs, images, and objects that convey some of your ideas about LOVE. Feel free to express yourself about more than just romantic love.

Gift certificates to the Weisman Museum Store of $100, $75, and $50 will be awarded to the top three LOVE Doors.

Doors will be judged on Monday, February 12 by a team of experts: Colleen Sheehy, Director of Education at the Weisman, Michael Baynes, Comstock Hall Director, and Kim Grocholski, Comstock Hall President. Winners will be announced Tuesday, February 13.

You must follow the resident halls regulations about door decorations (e.g., only 2/3s of the door can be covered; no electricity can be used; nothing can be affixed permanently to the door.) Please check your residence hall handbook or consult your resident assistant. Doors that do not adhere to the regulations will have to be disqualified from the competition.

The Files do not provide insight into the winning Door design from this 1996 contest… I wonder who created the best “Love Door”?

Don’t Open Boxes

Don’t open boxes.” This was the dry reaction of a WAM staff member after I had shared my find of a large box full of 13 binders in a storage room at the museum. The binders were each titled, “press book” and were dated by academic year. As I wiped away a few centimeters of dust off of the cover of the first binder, I was hopeful yet hesitant at what I would find.

Web_Pressbook3.jpgIt was more than I expected. Newspaper clippings, photographs, press releases, posters, opening invitations…. oh my! Each binder contained an explosion of ephemera covering exhibits and programming at the University Gallery from approximately 1957-1969. Each piece was neatly placed on pages and covered with clear plastic sheets.

This find came at an interesting time, as it happened just one day before I finished processing and documenting the last box, #218, of the WAM Collection at the University Archives (more on this later).

But although I have reached the last box at the Archives, through the simple act of opening boxes at WAM, I realized, as long as there is a WAM, there will always be more boxes to open.

I must now in good faith scan the pages of the press books to create digital versions, and then dutifully prepare the press books to be transferred to the Archives to be preserved in future “last” boxes… 219… 220… and so on.

But until I am finished with this latest discovery, I will likely heed sound advice, and refrain from opening any more boxes for the moment. I have a lot of scanning… and reading… to do:

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Paul Klee, Little Tree

From January 7 to February 8, 1960 the University Gallery exhibited paintings, drawings and prints by the artist Paul Klee from the Galka E. Scheyer Collection at the Pasadena Art Museum, California.

An invitation to the opening:

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A photograph was found within the exhibition folder in Box 7 of the WAM collection:


In the January 12, 1960 edition of the MN Daily, Thomas Olson reviews the exhibition in the article, “Klee’s Art is Sophisticated,”

… There is a strong element of whimsy and design for design’s sake in his work, but the essential content of his prints, drawings and paintings is the nature of the world and man. In an exhibit of his work now at the University Gallery, Klee sees man as a victim of his environment (“Swamp-Water Sprite“) and his desires (“The Lover“), and by nature a vulgar, grotesque and foolish creature.

Even the artist’s rather sympathetic depiction of the human situation in “Tightrope Walker” shows man as somewhat of a clown, moving intrepidly onward simply because there is nowhere else to go….

… This savage portrayal of man is considerably softened by Klee’s great wit and charm and his exquisite handling of line, contrast and color. He shows us what we are in such a way that we can’t help laughing at ourselves.”

I, personally, can’t help laughing at the lonely little tree unassumingly part of Klee’s exhibition…