Last act—for now
Only Light Can Do That: Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Sheppard Gallery in the University of Nevada, Reno’s Church Fine Arts Building is scheduled to close in May, and plans are in place to move its expanding art collection to a not-yet-named gallery in the new University Arts Building, slated to open in January 2019. After a nearly 60-year run, the gallery’s last act is not a nostalgic farewell to its past, but a nod to the collection’s future. The gallery hosts four small exhibits right now, including one titled Only Light Can Do That: Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
While the timing is right to commemorate MLK, who was assassinated 50 years ago this week, the exhibition is more about the gallery’s recent efforts to show and collect works by African American artists.
Opened in 1960 and named after artist and professor Craig Sheppard, the gallery at first collected artworks by West Coast artists, many of whom were colleagues or acquaintances of instructors.
In the last few years, there’s been a more deliberate effort to build a collection that suits the needs of art students and the general community. One of those needs, according to curator Paul Baker-Prindle, is “doing deep research.” Another priority, he said, is that if you live in the UNR or Reno community, “you should see yourself in an exhibition program.”
One thing the collection hasn’t included until recently is work by African American artists, who’ve played an inportant role in the history of American art.
“That’s certainly true of the performing arts, and I think we just haven’t learned the full depth of what African American visual artists have done,” Baker-Prindle said. “And I think that’s because a lot of collections don’t include work by them.”
He doesn’t figure the omission has been a willful attempt to be provincial, though.
“Most of our collection was built at a time when very few institutions were collecting works by African American artists,” he said. In recent years, he’s set out to make the collection more inclusive.
In 2016, UNR purchased its first-ever piece by an African-American artist, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, a Los Angeles-area studio photographer who shoots intimate portraits and nudes. The second piece was a painting by Purvis Young, a self-taught artist from Florida who never finished high school but whose work ended up in the collections of several high-profile museums.
This year, the gallery purchased a print by Elizabeth Catlett, who passed away in her late 90s in 2012.
“Catlett’s having a moment right now,” said Baker-Prindle. “I think more young people are looking at her right now.” Her print, “Malcolm X Speaks for Us,” raises some timely questions about social protest.
Baker-Prindle figures that this piece is the perfect anchor for a new collection—for the above reasons, and also because, as a longtime teacher, Catlett influenced generations of protégés whose work it would also make sense to collect.
The exhibit also includes a handful of pieces on loan, including one by graduate student DePaul Vera, the show’s only local artist.