Spencer Museum of Art redefines itself

Permanent collections displayed in new, innovative ways; eye-catching installations open

Spring, a time of rebirth, is also a time of redefinition. While nature is shaking off a long winter and blooming once again, the Spencer Museum of Art is rethinking how it presents its extensive collections while continuing to bring in new work from around the world.

The Musuem recently kicked off Project Redefine, an effort to revise how it displays its vast permanent collections, in new thematic installations. The museum is also hosting a series of new exhibitions, including a new work by Chinese artist Jin Shan examining the roots of authority and the cosmos and its share of a world-class collection developed by private New York collectors Herbert and Dorothy Vogel.


The project’s goal is to expand understanding of the museum’s collection by presenting it in new ways.

“Project Redefine aims to change the framework through which our permanent collection is viewed by creating new thematic installations,” said Kris Imants Ercums, curator of global contemporary and Asian art. “These long-term exhibitions tie together works from different eras and places with fundamental concepts related to art and the human experience: body, place, things and ideas.”

The museum engaged in more than two years of research to determine new ways to present its holdings. The collections will be centralized on the upper fourth floor, while the third floor will be dedicated to temporary exhibitions.

The first phase of the project, “Nature/Natural” and “Roots and Journeys,” will open later this spring. Dedicated to Asian art and indigenous arts of the Americas, Africa and Oceania, the gallery will display pieces collected at KU since 1890 and others that have never been displayed. Many items from KU’s former anthropology museum will be on display in the gallery.

In the fall, “Life and Body” will specialize in Euro-American painting and sculpture, ranging from antiquity to present day. “Empire of Things” will debut in summer 2012 and explore the concept of materiality through items such as blue and white ceramics, Persian rugs, Roman glass, African ivory and architectural ivory. The final phase, “Eternity and Transcendence” and “America and Other Myths,” will open in fall 2012 and explore the relationship between the concepts of sacred and secular.

Saralyn Reece Hardy, director of the museum, said the project is part of the museum’s ongoing efforts to engage visitors in the art and present new ideas.

“We want the museum to feel like a living thing,” she said. “One time you come here you’ll see one thing and the next time something new. We see the museum as a place of conversation.”


This spring and summer, the museum’s central court will be home to an installation that embodies the museum’s dedication to bringing in new work that engages the viewer. “It Came from the Sky” is a new work by Jin Shan, a Shanghai, China-based artist serving as the museum’s spring 2011 Freeman Foundation International Artist-In-Residence. The work examines themes of power and control in a global society. It features a seven-foot silicone policeman, suspended on a motorized wire, continually descending and ascending, surrounded by images of the cosmos projected from the ceiling.

“When Kris (Ercums) invited me to come to Kansas to do a project, and I visited the Spencer museum, I found much of the collection contained works with Christian themes,” Jin Shan said. “This made me think about structures of power through the ages, where it comes from, how it’s represented and perceived. In Chinese tradition there is no ‘god’ per se; the translation of god, is sky. The high ceilings in the exhibition space prompted me to make an expansive and mysterious work which would conflate these various questions.”

The work is Shan’s first museum exhibition in the United States. Hardy said the project, part of the museum’s growing international artists-in-residence program and the second of three Chinese artist stays funded by the Freeman Foundation, is a perfect example of what the museum hopes to achieve with its central space: where artists from around the globe create new works inspired by the museum with the aim of directly involving and engaging viewers.


Adjacent to the central court in the New Media Gallery, the museum is now featuring “NetWorks,” an exhibition of a unique gift. The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection was recently gifted to the museum as part of a program called “50 Works for 50 States.” Since their marriage in 1962, the Vogels — a New York couple of modest means — have collected primarily minimalist and conceptual art, often by up-and-comers who have since become world-renowned. With assistance from the National Gallery of Art, they recently donated 50 pieces from their collection to one museum in each state. The Spencer Musuem of Art, chosen for Kansas, is showing all 50 of its Vogel Collection works in “NetWorks.”

“Dorothy and Herbert Vogel have honored the nation with their historic gift to every state in America,” Hardy said. “The 50 works of art assembled for Kansas enable the Spencer to share the brilliance of some of the most thoughtful and experimental artist of our time with the public. The generosity of the Vogels to the people of the United States is matched only by their commitment to the contemporary artists whose ideas and work they supported. The Vogels set high standards for philanthropy and have reminded those of us in the arts that the value of art is in its ability to open eyes and minds.”

For more on the Spencer Museum of Art and its projects and exhibitions, visit spencerart.ku.edu.

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