In the summer of 2009 Kris Anderson, manager of the Jacob Lawrence Art Gallery; and Judi Clark, director of the School of Arts advising office, were in the basement of the Art Building doing some cleaning and surveying of what was there.
“We saw some cabinets with padlocks on them and wondered what was inside,” Clark recalled. “When we opened them, it was just like going into grandmas attic; here were all these artworks in desperate need of conservation.”
What Clark and Anderson had discovered was the School of Arts accidental collection. Locked up in the storage room were pieces by former faculty and students, some dating back as far as the 1920s or a little before (despite the fact that the Art Building wasnt built until 1950). Some of the pieces were left there by faculty, some were the result of donations from estates and some were student work that wasnt picked up after an exhibit, or left behind as part of the now defunct Art on Loan Program. (The program loaned out student art to departments on campus.)
“We realized we had a lot more stuff than anybody had kept track of,” Anderson said.
Anderson, who has been at the school four years, has a degree in museum studies, and, he said, “If youre drawn to museums, theres something about you that likes to collect stuff.” As his professional instincts kicked in, he decided that it was important to take the first step and figure out just what the collection contained.
Recognizing that he needed help for such a massive project — the storage area contained 300 to 400 works of art — Anderson was able to recruit two graduate student interns to help. Amanda Mae from the Museology Program and Cristina Linclau from Museology and the Information School began cataloging the work, using a database that they constructed from scratch.
“We have a state-of-the-art studio that students use to document their work, so we took pictures of each piece and inserted the information we had about it,” Anderson said.
Some of the pieces were conveniently labeled, but others were not. For the latter, Anderson and the interns did their best to identify the work.
Some of the works are by well-known people — there are some small pieces by Professor Emeritus Alden Mason, for example, and some work by Jacob Lawrence, for whom the gallery is named. And there are watercolors by Ray Hill, another retired professor. The professor with the most works in the collection, however, is Walter Isaacs, who headed up the School of Art (originally the Department of Painting, Sculpture and Design) from 1927 until 1954 and is credited with bringing it to national prominence.
“You can really see a breadth of what he did from the teens all the way up to the 60s,” Anderson said. “When youre able to sit down and see the trajectory of an artists career with a large span of work, its really cool. Thats not something you get to see very often.”
In Isaacs case, Anderson also found notes and sketchbooks that are being turned over to UW Libraries Special Collections.
The works vary a lot in quality. Some were framed and meant to last, while others were clearly studies. One Isaacs piece, for example, had been painted on both sides of the canvas. And given that these works have been in the basement rather than a climate-controlled gallery or museum for many years, they arent in the best shape. But they arent in terrible shape either, Anderson said. The basement has less fluctuation in temperature than the upstairs of the building, and fortunately, there hasnt been a flood or broken water pipe. But Anderson has already found another storage space for them and theyll be moved when shelving can be constructed.
Anderson estimates that cataloging the work in the building is 90 percent complete. However, there are also pieces out on long-term loan in other campus buildings, as well as art by former faculty that has been at the Francine Seders Gallery, and these need to be included in the catalog. What will happen when everything has been duly recorded hasnt been decided yet. Some art experts are slated to evaluate the work in winter quarter.
“There are questions of ownership on some of the work,” said School of Art Director Christopher Ozubko. “We will be working with the Attorney Generals Office on that.”
Ideally, Ozubko said, the school would like to sell at least some of the work, with the proceeds to benefit the school and its students.
Meanwhile, Anderson and the graduate students will continue working on the cataloging process.
“Its been an adventure finding this work and describing it,” he said. “Wherever the collection goes, it will be the next new adventure for me.”