ART-ist in residence

 

With an African Fon king Cameroon sculpture to her right, an exotic collection of Guatemalan “devil” masks to her left and in full view of a Tom Piccolo sculpture that seems to be quizzically overseeing everyone in the room, University of Texas Arlington collections specialist and art historian lecturer Cheryl Mitchell clearly resides in her comfort zone.

It’s no museum, but rather the Visual Resource Commons – a small meeting and research area – within the Fine Arts Building.  Add up the value of just the art in this room alone and it would likely require a starting bid of a quarter million dollars, likely more. That’s if it could be purchased, which it cannot.

But as art at UTA goes, it represents the proverbial drop in the bucket. All of the works in view are, however, on Mitchell’s every-growing inventory list of university art – paintings, sculptures, public art, ceramics, glass, metal, wood and photography.

For Mitchell, the collections specialist title translates to becoming a finder of valuable and unique art scattered across the sprawling 420-acre campus. “The university had been around since 1895, during which time we’ve had many prominent artists who taught here and either left the university portions of their work, or who donated their own private collections,” Mitchell notes. “Alumni and others have also made donations from time to time. The overall collection is substantial.”

That includes Tom Piccolo sculptures, paintings by Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, William Bennet and Salvador Dali, glassworks by David Keen, and what has now grown into one of the larger university collections of African and South American art in the country. Add to that a vast collection of public art found everywhere outside, ranging from esoteric fountains and sculptures to the current vogue of using life-size maverick horses for a painter’s palette.

Which brings up the big question: Who has been keeping up with and maintaining art collected over the university’s complicated 122-year history that includes eight name changes and multiple administrative changes?

“Good question,” Mitchell says, “the answer to which is that until recently keeping up with all of it hasn’t always been a priority. There was never a strategized system or traditional inventory system like you would find at a museum location. UTA, though well known for working with the arts community, had not really launched into that area in terms of inventory, upkeep and thinking about those kinds of collections until recently. Even a Picasso needs love – and some thought about how it will be seen, preserved and protected.”

The most glaring example of the issue came in the late 1970s when a Monet and a Toulouse-Lautrec painting were stolen from a back-hallway area of the Herford Student Center, never to be recovered.

“That,” Mitchell says, “was the first real eye opener about the need to better monitor UTA’s growing art collection.”

 

In 2013, Mitchell, then a doctoral student, became more closely involved with the collection at the urging of Director of Visual Resources Rita Lasater. Lasater was working with a large, unique and extremely valuable collection of African art donated by famed herpetologist Dr. Jonathan Campbell and his wife Tanya Dowdy.

That collection would later be added to by former UTA biology Chairman Dr. Edmond Brody, who spent more than three decades traveling with Dr. Campbell across Africa and South America, always collecting native art in addition to their biology research. Some of the pieces date back more than 2,000 years.

“Those two collections made it apparent that we had to catalog our art more precisely, but we didn’t really consider the need to provide an accounting of everything we had here until these two giant collections arrived,” Mitchell recalls. “Campbell and Brody saw the success of how we were caring for and displaying the exhibitions, providing opportunities for students to research the art, providing community access programs and exhibitions. Then it began to spring roll from there, with more art donations coming it. That’s when we really began to think about not only what’s here but what’s everywhere.”  >>>

Often using students, Mitchell began the equivalent of a walking windshield tour of campus, not only photographing art but making note of the conditions for that art – light, humidity, temperature, overall exposure.

Sometimes the results were surprising and demanded immediate action. A Picasso painting was framed on a wall above a trash can near the student food court. A Piccolo sculpture was so close to a building door that it was not only exposed to drafts and the occasional friendly student hand rub, but also splashed with water from passing students on rainy days. “Some of the framing for the more valuable paintings was also showing wear,” Mitchell says. “We also kept discovering pieces we didn’t know about. Or, at least, they weren’t on a formal inventory.”

Over the past three years the value of the newly re-discovered art at UTA has grown steadily. Though Mitchell isn’t in the art appraisal business, she estimates the value of newly inventories art to be substantial – perhaps $2 million, quite likely more. That’s not counting the earlier inventory.

“It’s treasures like the Picasso and the Piccolo we want to seek out,” Mitchell says. “We’ve also found sculptures placed intermittently across the campus that need scheduled care. Many were architectural commissions that were intended to complement buildings that they were with. That’s a major project we’re working. Sure there are Monets and Dalis, but also [works of] less well known artists that are nevertheless quite valuable.”

Not all of UTA’s art is visible at all times. Some is kept in three different storage areas under optimum conditions – dim lights, low humidity, temperatures in the low to mid 60s. Delightful surprises also show up in those rooms – here a 300-pound African hornbill bird sculpture, there a hundred-pound ceremonial head piece, and on a shelf a 300 B.C. terra cotta African Nok pottery (itself valued at around $80,000).

Mitchell says the process of inventory and planning stops and starts, depending on funding, with yet another push planned this summer with the addition of a three-student inventory crew. She anticipates new discoveries.

The master plan? Expand the knowledge and awareness of the collections for not only the university community, but the region – more availability of the art not only for student study but also in exhibitions and on-line.

“We have a superb collection of art forms that reflect all kinds of cultural histories,” Mitchell says. “We want to protect them and share them.”