Archive deep dive
To prep for a 2018 move to a new arts building, the gallery at UNR is unearthing its entire collection—along with some surprising stories
“First of all, you want to wear gloves.”
Andrew Blicharz was doing what he had been doing all summer—taking inventory of the thousands of art objects that belong to the art galleries at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Gloves on, Blicharz carefully lifted a woodcut onto a table in the Sheppard Contemporary Gallery. He measured the piece, made some notes and took a photo. “This is one of the uncatalogued ones,” he said. “We don’t know what it is. I haven’t done the research yet.”
The work itself—a woodcut depicting two figures—is not remarkable, but what’s happening inside the gallery is. Instead of the usual open floor plan dotted with sculptures, white walls hung with paintings, and well-dressed employees modeling authority with dark pants, here was Blicharz with a 5 o’clock shadow, surrounded by an ocean of artwork in various stages of organization, with two desks rising up like lonely, paper-filled islands.
What’s going on here, exactly? According to Blicharz, it’s the summer before the summer before the big move. In October 2018, the contents of the Sheppard Contemporary Gallery will relocate a block southeast of their current location to the new University Arts Building—a state-of-the-art, 42,500 square foot space. Until then, Blicharz—along with director Paul Baker Prindle and art preparator Justin Manfredi—is one of the literal prime movers for the museum’s transition.
In an attempt to do a proper inventory of the permanent collection before the move, the museum staff has converted the 30-by-40-foot gallery floor into a lab, because—to put it lightly—they have a lot of work to do.Gallery turned laboratory
The research Blicharz has not done on the uncatalogued woodcut is a drop in a sea of research that no one has done. University Galleries owns around 2,000 objects with 4,000 more promised gifts on the way. Only a small percentage of them are fully documented.
“We have a plan,” Blicharz assured. “Paul and I did a pretty good look through the collection storage room and were able to subdivide everything into doable batches and chunks. We budgeted a certain amount of time for each batch depending on how hard we thought it was going to be to get through. And, so far, it looks like we’re keeping up OK.”
Over the next 18 months, the three museum employees will create manual catalog entries, enter information into the museum database, photograph art for a visual checklist, work with promised future gift donors, send items to the conservator, and conduct in-depth research on individual pieces.
There’s an iceberg metaphor here—not just for the volume of work that needs to be done, but also for the amount of art that the public normally sees.
“It’s been my experience that most people don’t even know we have a permanent collection,” director Baker Prindle said in a Skype call. “We’ve been kind of hiding this stuff in the dark.”
This isn’t as shocking as it sounds. Most museums only show two to five percent of their permanent collections at any given time. But for the University Galleries—save a 10-piece exhibition curated by Bob Blesse in 2012—what the public saw of the permanent collection was next to nothing for a span of about 15 years.
“There were even people in the [art] department who didn’t know we had one,” said Baker Prindle.It's history
Not recognizing what they have on their hands is kind of a theme with the permanent collection.
Back in the 1960s, Wilbur D. May made his private collection available as a gift to the City of Reno. Among the items on the object list were pieces by Picasso, Calder, Klee, Braque, Miro and Pollack. When the city said no, May opened up his offer to the university. They, too, turned it down. Today, the paintings from May’s “Modern Masters” hang in museums all over the world, including a large chunk at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Granted, at the time, the paintings by Pollack and Picasso were nowhere near the eight figures they are worth today—but still, big mistake.
Another low point: up until the mid-70s, there was a tradition among Greek houses to “borrow” work from the galleries as a prank. The year the shenanigans ended was the year it caused a minor diplomatic crisis when a fraternity brother stole a set of silkscreens belonging to the Japanese government. When the pieces were returned, the university had no choice but to finally put an end to the yearly art theft.
It wasn’t all bad, though. During Walter McNamara’s tenure as gallery director through the early 1990s, the university pursued work suited to our area by adding regional artists like Louis Siegriest, as well as an extensive works-on-paper collection that holds up well to dust and low humidity.Looking farther afield
Under recent direction, Baker Prindle has expanded the definition of what appropriate collecting looks like for the museum—beyond regional painters and climate-appropriate work. For him, the purpose of the collection is to be a touch point for having bigger conversations, asking bigger questions, and moving historical perspectives “off center” for a mainstream audience.
“That’s the trick,” said Baker Prindle. “How do we talk about center? Because for people working in aboriginal Australia, what they’re doing feels like a center. That is their center. … It’s a really productive conversation to have because it illuminates how charged our notions of center are.”
Although he still thinks passing on May’s gift was a big mistake, there is definitely a case to be made for re-framing the types of objects universities should be going after.
“You know, people kind of turn up their noses if you don’t have the important painters in your collection,” said Baker Prindle. “But it’s like, ’Well, why do paintings define a collection?’ And the answer is that white, European, straight males make paintings. The best examples of those paintings are already in museums. And so it’s sort of a case of circumstances that present this opportunity to really think about those things.”
Although the university will always collect encyclopedically for teaching purposes, a large area of display and acquisition is now focused on artists like Rebecca and Sandra Eagle, Keith Haring, Maria Martinez, Dia al-Azzawi and Wendy Redstar—individuals whose work and identities do not happen to reflect existing power structures.
Of course, white, straight, male painters still have a place in the gallery, too. Starting at the end of August, former permanent collection intern and University of Tennessee, Knoxville painting graduate student Austin Pratt will curate and make work for Laced—an exhibit specifically designed for the transitioning gallery. For the show, Pratt will choose items from the permanent collection—like the Eagle sisters’ baskets—to display alongside his own ink drawings.
In the following months, other artists with ties to the permanent collection— locals Walter McNamara, Lynda Yuroff and Joan Arrizabalaga—will also show artwork inspired by the archives. That work will hang in the hallway while the museum staff continues their lab work in the main gallery.