raiders of the lost art
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Raiders of the Lost Art
November, 2013, Page 142
Photos by Richard Maack
Jan Cantley, a curator and manager at Heard Museum, browses the basket collection in the museum's vast basement.
The majority of Arizona’s museum collections reside in storage. What argosies of art and artifact are concealed in their basements?
There’s a painting hanging in the basement of the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tucson. It alone adorns a muted mustard-yellow brick wall facing rows of six-foot-high racks overflowing with old leather saddles and myriad basement bric-a-brac. Viewed from afar in the musty storage space, the framed landscape painting could be any granny’s dime-store attic art, but look closer, and you’ll see the signature of late Tucson artist Maynard Dixon, whose original oil paintings of the American West typically fetch prices in the mid-to-high six figures. This piece is a one-off Dixon did for a friend. In other words, there could be a small fortune on the wall.
According to the nonprofit Rand Corporation, 72 percent of U.S. museum artworks are in storage, including immensely valuable items boxed and forgotten in basements, only to be unearthed decades later. In 1974, a trove of treasures – from an ivory Mycenaean model of a war galleon to copper and stone seals from the 15th-century BCE – was discovered in the basement of the National Archaeological Museum in Greece. In 2010, fossilized fragments of a previously unknown dinosaur, named Mojoceratops, were found in the basement of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In January 2013, London’s National Gallery found a previously unknown portrait in its basement by Venetian Renaissance painter Titian. Apparently, some museum basements are big enough to swallow history.
Museums routinely receive items – often in bulk collections – from other museums, family estates, artists and individual donors. Arrivals must be processed and cataloged prior to storage, and if a museum has a shoestring staff budget, the process can take a while. Some art will be loaned out or deaccessioned – sold to raise money to purchase something else for the collection – but most of the time, it hangs out in the vaults.
“Most museums have one to five percent of their collection on display,” says Ashley Smith, registrar at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe. This fact rankles many museum enthusiasts, including billionaire businessman and art collector Eli Broad, who implored the American Association of Museums at a 2010 meeting in Los Angeles to “Get art out of the basements.”
As elsewhere, the majority of Valley museum collections are in storage – as much as 95 percent, in the case of the Heard Museum in central Phoenix, which is known for its massive network of temperature-controlled subterranean tunnels leading to several large vaults. But these are no cobweb-draped catacombs filled with docents stumbling through the dark with flashlights and tripping over forgotten Picassos. The storage facilities at Phoenix’s museums are bright and bustling with people – curators, conservators, archivists, registrars, security – all doing their part to manage these massive collections, and to find ways to show more and store less.
So what’s hiding in the vaults of some of Arizona’s most notable museums? We took a behind-the-scenes storage tour of four venerable Valley arts institutions to find out.
Photos - Clock-wise from top left:
Conservator Irene Peters cleans a sculpture titled "Red Totem" (1980) by Ojibwa artist George Morrison (1919-2000) in the basement of Heard Museum. It will be on exhibit through Jan. 12, 2015, as part of the Heard show Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison.
This red and black "blanket-style" Navajo dress (1980s), made by Navajo/Seminole artist Margaret Wood (b. 1950), was a gift of Tom Galbraith and the artist. It is one of several articles of Native American fashion in the exhibit American Indian Fashion: From Lloyd Kiva New to Now, opening Nov. 23 at Heard Museum North.
Zuni artist Dan Simplicio (1917-1969) made this bolo tie (1967) included in the Fred Harvey Fine Arts Collection at Heard Museum. The tie was recently loaned to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport for its Native American Bolo Ties, Vintage to Contemporary Artistry exhibit, which closed in June 2013. The exhibit will move to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in June 2014.
Wilson Tawaquaptewa (c. 1870s-1960), a Hopi carver and village chief of Oraibi on Third Mesa on the Hopi Reservation in Northern Arizona, created this carving (1930s-1940s) that combines numerous Katsinam and non-Katsinam figures. Materials include a three-dimensional stuffed snake, painted leather and several types of shells.
At the Heard Museum in Downtown Phoenix, people can view a variety of Native American art and indigenous artifacts from Arizona’s history, from 19th-century Hopi pottery to the abstract expressionist paintings of Luiseño artist Fritz Scholder. There are about 2,000 items on display in the galleries of the museum, a sprawling 130,000-square-foot structure with its own auditorium. But the hidden gem of the Heard is its basement, which harbors an estimated 40,000 items, including a dozen or so sculptures by late Chiricahua Apache sculptor Allan Houser, clothing collaboratively designed by Cochiti Pueblo designer Virgil Ortiz and Donna Karan, and more than 400 kachina dolls from Senator Barry Goldwater’s collection, which constitute almost half the Heard’s 1,000-strong stockpile. Most of them sit on basement shelves in clear, air-sealed display cases. “They’re some of the most fragile things we have here,” says Ann Marshall, Director of Curations for Heard Museum.
When the museum opened in 1929, everything was on exhibit. As more items were acquired over the years and the museum expanded, underground vaults were constructed, starting with an expansion in 1967. The largest vault, near a freight elevator that would fit a small elephant, was built in 1999. Each room in the labyrinthine basement has its purpose – one vault each for pottery, baskets and textiles, large-scale sculptures and paintings, plus a giant walk-in freezer, staging area for upcoming exhibits and a conservation room. Most items lie on ceiling-high sliding track shelves, while others reside neatly – all bagged and tagged and numbered – in drawers. There’s a computer in every room, linked to the Heard’s massive database, where every item in the collection is accounted for.
Marshall says curators try to keep current work out of the basement. “Especially when you’re working with living artists, you want their work to get out there and be seen,” she says. Museum curators frequently pull contemporary pieces from the collection to show alongside period work, as is the case with the exhibit American Indian Fashion: From Lloyd Kiva New to Now, opening this month at the Heard Museum North in Scottsdale.
To keep more of the collection off the shelves, the Heard also frequently loans pieces to other museums. Case in point: the bolo ties recently returned from an exhibit at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. “If you have things in your collection you’re not going to show, you need to find a way to show it,” Marshall says. The museum also occasionally sells display-dormant art to purchase something else for the collection. Marshall says they recently sold some Navajo textiles that were sitting in storage to buy something they’ll show. “You want to take in things you’ll use one way or another.”
2301 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
Now on exhibit: Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam and the Land, through March 3, 2014.
• • • •
Arizona Historical Society Museum
The storage room at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe feels a little like the setting for an episode of Scooby-Doo. Something that looks like a giant iron torture rack (but which is really a turn-of-the-20th-century coffee grinder) occupies floor space next to a beaten-up blue bike with two flat tires and an inch of dust on the cracked leather seat. An old clown costume puffs out from a wardrobe, providing a glimpse of yellow and blue polka dots among an otherwise ghostly row of faded lace and ecrue dresses. It’s the kitschiest and most cluttered part of this museum, one of eight museums statewide dedicated to Arizona history and established by the oldest historical agency in the state (Arizona Historical Society was founded in 1864). The vault provides visual evidence that much of the AZHS haul is pop-culture-related, and not just territorial shovels and the like.
The storage facility at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe contains all manner of Arizona artifacts, from antique armoires and early desk fans to thousands of clothing pieces and nearly 8,000 objects related to The Wallace and Ladmo Show.
There are about 50,000 objects in storage in this room, which is about the size of two double-car garages. More than a quarter of the space is taken up by clothing – more than 2,000 pieces in all, including a Pepto Bismol-pink competition gown and “squaw dresses” worn by Shyrle Owens (Miss Arizona USA 1961), one of Barry Goldwater’s suits made with his custom “Au H20” insignia fabric, and every costume Pat McMahon wore on legendary local children’s TV program, The Wallace and Ladmo Show. All the clothes are on hangers with non-bleached muslin cloth padding, or stored in special acid-free dress boxes. There are also numerous boxes of miscellaneous textiles, and an aisle of filing cabinets filled with a hodgepodge of things like old political campaign buttons and a bulky turquoise and silver necklace that belonged to former Arizona governor Rose Mofford, who’s reportedly joked that she plans to donate her famous blue beehive hair to the museum.
Some of the art inconspicuously hanging in the storage room includes an original Ed Mell painting with a gold frame hand-carved by the artist that was on display in the AZHS museum for five years (to preserve the painting, a photo is displayed in its stead), and 19 of the museum’s 20 Marjorie Reed paintings (one is on exhibit). The museum occasionally loans items to other museums or historical societies for exhibit, and in rare cases, deaccessions items. But such permanent removal of items from the collection is complicated with AZHS. An object must meet certain criteria (e.g., it is in unsalvageable condition, it has been stolen or lost for at least five years, it is inauthentic, etc.), and decisions regarding deaccession must be approved by the state board.
AZHS regularly receives new objects from donors. Every donation they keep has to be manually cataloged, and for items with multiple parts – like an old mortician’s makeup kit with two dozen components – every piece is individually numbered. Said kit was part of an acquisition of more than 2,000 items that came to AZHS from a Walker Drug store collection. It wouldn’t look so out of place on the shelf next to the toddler-size, glassy-eyed antique porcelain doll. “Every day is like Christmas,” AZHS photo curator and archivist Rebekah Tabah says. “Or Halloween.”
Photos - Clock-wise from top left:
Among the 14,000 objects in the A.J. Bayless Collecton at the Arizona Historical Society Museum are hundreds of political campaign buttons. These buttons are from the 1940 U.S. presidential election pitting Franklin Delano Roosevelt (running for his third term as president) against businessman Wendell Willkie. “Mr. Bayless did NOT like FDR so the buttons are very Willkie-heavy,” AZHS registrar Ashley Smith writes. “There are about 200 [campaign] buttons there but we probably have close to another 100 of them. Mr. Bayless was very interested in this subject and made a full display out of these buttons.”
This silk and lace wedding dress is a replica of the dress worn by President Theodore Roosevelt's oldest daughter, Alice, at her White House wedding to Republican Congressman Nicholas Longworth in 1906. The delicate replica is housed in storage at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe.
Among the stored items at Arizona Historical Society Museum is this Dreyer & Blumberg cash register, factory-shipped circa 1909 and used in the stores of A.J. Bayless, founder of Arizona supermarket chain AJ's Fine Foods, formerly known as AJ Bayless. Bayless opened his first Phoenix store in 1930. After changing hands a few times, the chain was sold to fellow Arizona grocer Eddie Basha.
An old sign from Valley National Bank sits in the storage area at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe. The sign, which registrar Ashley Smith says appears to be made of a plexi plastic, was manufactured around 1985, and came to AZHS in 2003 through a former bank employee who donated a collection of VNB objects to the AZHS Tucson branch.
Arizona Historical Society Museum
1300 N. College Ave., Tempe
Now on exhibit: Day of the Dead, through Jan. 12, 2014.
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