Feb. 6, 1998

Spencer museum boasts diverse collection

More than 18,000 objects are stored at the KU art museum

By Harlan D. Roedel

Spencer Museum of Art is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Andrea Norris, museum director, recently talked about the museum's collection and some of the museum's activities that aren't apparent to gallery visitors.

Norris is proud of the museum's diverse collection of more than 18,000 objects. The collection has no "best" category, she said, but is well represented in many fields, such as photographs and prints, quilts, and Japanese and East Asian art.

"One of the things that is attractive about this place is the variety of things," Norris said. A notable recent acquisition is the striking glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, which hangs like giant, shimmering sea flowers from a gallery wall.

"I am pleased with the growth of African-American and Latino works and works by women. We used to have only five works by black artists. Now we have more than 30. And we had only three on view by women, and now we have a dozen," Norris said.

The collection has oddities, too, such as the original paintings of the Varga Girl pinups that used to appear in Esquire magazine and a collection of glass bottles and another of drawer pulls.

The museum works to make the collection part of the cultural life of the university and the community.

In reaching out to the campus, the museum often mounts exhibits that complement activities taking place at the university, such as displays during the Lawrence Indian Arts Show or an exhibit of voodoo banners during a Surface Design Conference devoted to textile design.

Another program works to incorporate art in KU classes where art usually isn't found, such as in Western civilization or Latin American studies classes - or where art may seem downright alien, such as in pharmacy and engineering. The museum invites faculty members to learn how to talk about original works of art.

Norris encourages faculty members to have students visit the museum. One of her aims is to entice students into the museum for at least one visit during their stay at KU. After one visit, perhaps students will become interested enough to return.

The museum is striving, too, to bring art to every public school classroom in Kansas, with a goal of making visual literacy a part of every child's education. Finding funds to support these programs and to maintain and add to the collection is a perpetual concern, Norris said.

Federal money to support the arts is drying up, causing museums to take a hard look at their activities, Norris said. "This is a time of transition for a lot of university art museums. We are re-examining exhibition schedules and having fewer large, expensive loan shows. This period gives us an opportunity to do research on our permanent collections."

She's working on an up-to-date handbook of the collection, selecting 600 to 700 of the best objects, for use by scholars and by others interested in the collection.

Although federal funds are shrinking, the museum is financially sound, Norris said. KU provides about half of the museum's budget. "The university is quite supportive of the Spencer museum. I think the university is quite proud of this place."

Mrs. Kenneth Spencer, who provided funds for the museum's construction, left an endowment for the museum. Campaign Kansas, KU's major fund-raising drive in the early 1990s, also provided funds. Contributions from other sources continue to augment the Spencer's resources.

Even a museum as well ordered as the Spencer runs out of space. "After 20 years in this building, we're bursting at the seams," Norris said. "Our teaching facilities are limited. The print room is filled. The art library will run out of space in five years."

Charles C. Eldredge, Hall distinguished professor of art history, remembers his years as director of the art museum, from 1971 to 1982. In 1982, he became director of the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. He returned to KU in 1988 as a distinguished professor.

He was director when KU's art museum was in Spooner Hall, now home of the Museum of Anthropology, and called Spooner-Thayer Museum of Art. And he was director when the museum moved to the Spencer building.

He laughs when he recalls conditions in Spooner. "The building was old. It was tiny. We had only one-third to one-fourth the space we have now. It was not air-conditioned. We had no elevator to carry artworks or visitors from floor to floor. Storage was so limited that things were put into nooks, crannies and closets."

Because the museum lacked the means to control temperature and humidity, much of the collection remained in storage. Objects such as old prints and photographs, too fragile to risk being exposed to Kansas heat and humidity, were rarely exhibited.

Eldredge arrived at KU in early summer of 1970, after a calamitous spring semester of that year, when the Kansas Union was heavily damaged by fire. He remembers learning that the firm that insured the art collection had insisted that the most valuable objects in the collection be crated and moved to the basement of Spencer Research Library for safekeeping.

"By 1972 and '73, earnest efforts were being made to identify prospective donors for a new museum," Eldredge said. Funds for the $6 million building came from the Kenneth A. and Helen F. Spencer Foundation, the Kress Foundation, the KU Endowment Association and other sources.

From his second-floor faculty office in the art history department in the Spencer museum, he looks out a cold, snowy January morning.

The museum was dedicated Jan. 17, 1978, on another such day - snow was blowing and streets and sidewalks were icy, Eldredge recalled, but the dedication that evening was well attended.

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