Little-seen treasures from the TCU Permanent Art Collection made a public display on campus in February.
American Painter Jane Stuart’s oil-on-canvas work presided over the quiet section in the Mary Couts Burnett Library for decades. Visitors often missed the sizable gold-framed painting. That’s understandable. The iconic portrait of George Washington hung 40 feet high on the wall.
But a few months ago, Stuart’s replica of her father’s most famous work (think the U.S. dollar bill) hung at eye level at the entrance of the Moudy Gallery. The portrait was part of a curated show that traced the history of American democracy from the revolution through the 20th century.
In an inspiring exhibit, all 16 pieces in the “States of the Union,” including original works by Andy Warhol, Luis Jimenez and Bill Mauldin, belong to the TCU Permanent Art Collection.
The exhibited artworks ranged in medium from oil-on-canvas and silkscreen prints to lithographs and pop art. The diversity of the pieces not only represents the gems in the university’s permanent collection, they showed the diversity of political commentary among the featured artists.
“[The artists] provoke intriguing questions regarding our national identity, values and conflicts,” said Lola Clairmont, a graduate student curator.
As Clairmont and the three other graduate curators selected the exhibit’s theme, the words of Benjamin Franklin inspired them: It is the duty of every citizen to challenge authority.
“All of the artists we have chosen were active as political motivators working to change or challenge our democratic system,” said Cathryn Bidal, another graduate curator responsible for the exhibition.
A third graduate curator, Alexa Ibarguen, said: “We selected these works to encourage the discussion of politics [on campus and in the community].”
A professor’s challenge
The graduate curators created the political exhibit as part of a seminar project. Their professor, Mark Thistlethwaite, professor of art history, challenged them to develop an art show using only pieces from the university’s permanent collection.
Clairmont and her fellow graduate curators soon discovered the immensity of their professor’s restriction. “The difficulty of keeping track of where pieces are is partly due to the fact that they are scattered across campus, a few in a building here, a few in a basement there,” she said.
“Some of these pieces were found flat filed in drawers. Others were in closets,” said Anna Kern, the fourth graduate curator on the project. “The Mauldin sketches were not tagged or cataloged in any way, presumably [they were] a gift. Now can enjoy a small piece of a much larger collection.”
Consisting of more than 1,000 pieces hanging and stored around campus, the permanent collection is “relatively untapped,” said Thistlethwaite, who holds the Kay and Velma Kimbell Chair of Art History. “We saw a lot of work, but there is so much more we have yet to discover.”
The professor explained that exhibiting the 16 pieces served not only as a way to highlight the politically themed works in the permanent collection but also to help define a direction for the university’s mostly unseen artworks.
“[We want to] build a collection with a direction instead of just taking in pieces,” said Thistlethwaite, who specializes in art of the United States. “Developing the collection as a teaching collection will provide great experience for students. I have high hopes that this will all come to fruition.”
Sara-Jayne Parsons, the new curator of the Art Galleries at TCU, said that a new direction of the permanent collection is taking shape. “This exhibition has acted as one of the first important steps in the process,” she said. “The graduate curators have set the bar high with a very professional exhibition.”
With the “States of the Union” exhibit seeing more than 300 patrons in just over 30 days, the graduate curators were eager to guide patrons through the gallery.
“We had a ninth grade art class come in to learn about the pieces and sketch a few of their favorites,” said Bidal. “It’s great to see that we can reach others outside of the campus community and that they can benefit from the TCU collection.”
The collection’s future
Hosting the “States of the Union” exhibit at Moudy Gallery has opened the door to future opportunities to develop and share the permanent collection.
“We are also considering an artist eye program, in which an outside artist or TCU faculty member would set up an exhibition with works from our collection,” said Thistlethwaite. “It’s an exciting and on going process.”
Parsons wants the permanent collection to serve as an opportunity for teaching, research and outreach to the community. “The goal is to make it clear that the galleries and high quality art are available to everyone,” she said.
“We will probably have an exhibition again in the fall,” said Thistlethwaite. “There are so many possibilities; the collection is relatively untapped. We would love to see what other students could put together with the works we have access to.”
Most of the pieces in the permanent collection were given to the university as gifts. As a new gift policy is formed, the professor said that there might be potential to focus the collection on gifts of Texas art.
“In the DFW area, there is a great interest in early Texas art. I have visited over 70 private collections in the area,” said Thistlethwaite. “If we could receive some of those pieces it would give us a niche. It’s a kind of work that museums won’t show a lot of, [but] as a teaching collection could work very well.”