Work of Art
Thanks to student art-buying trips, Wake Forest's collection is ever-evolving, and so are those who make the journey.
Students hurrying through the Benson University Center on their way to class might not fully appreciate that they're also walking through an art gallery.
Down one hallway, Pablo Picasso's L'Ecuyere (1960) hangs near Roy Lichtenstein's Hopeless (1965). Down another hall, students can ponder the social implications of Famous Last Words: The Death of a Poet (Robert Colescott, 1989) or Heaven is Worth it All (Howard Finster, 1984).
Or contrast the realistic style of Ron Kleeman's bright red fire truck (The Four Horsemen and the Soho Saint, 1976 alongside Ellsworth Kelly's abstract image (Colored Paper Image XVI (Blue Yellow Red), 1976) and Jasper Johns' Flags (1967-68).
A short walk through Benson is a journey through fifty years of contemporary art, made possible by a unique educational experience. Every four years since 1963, students, accompanied by faculty mentors, have gone to New York City to purchase art for the Student Union Collection of Contemporary Art — thought to be the only university art collection in the country developed by students. The collection has grown to more than 160 pieces — paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture, and photography — that show the developments in contemporary art during each successive student generation.
The collection is important not only because of its breadth and quality, but also because of the learning experience it offers students, says Provost Jill Tiefenthaler, who has supported greater prominence for the arts on campus and funded several initiatives specifically to give the art collection more visibility. "The fact that our students select the art themselves and have built an exceptional collection with the support of the art faculty speaks to how Wake Forest links education and experience," she says. "All our students, regardless of their course of study, are exposed to a wide variety of art."
About a third of the collection is on display through December 31 at Reynolda House Museum of American Art, in the main gallery of the Mary and Charlie Babcock Wing. The exhibit, Now/Then: A Journey in Collecting Contemporary Art at Wake Forest University includes fifty-two pieces highlighting the best-known artists in the collection; the various styles represented; the 1969 buying-trip to New York; and the personal stories of the students who have been on the buying trips. The newest pieces in the collection, purchased last spring by students, were on display in the Charlotte and Philip Hanes Art Gallery in the Scales Fine Arts Center earlier this semester.
A life-changing experience
J. D. Wilson ('69, P '01) was one of the students on the 1969 trip. Students bought nineteen pieces capturing the tumultuous 1960s — the most ever purchased in one year — including pieces by Paul Cadmus, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein. "Back in the '60s, I don't know of any college that handed over a purse of money to students and let them make serious buying-decisions to create a permanent art collection," says Wilson, whose love of art continues today; he is now chair of the Reynolda House Board of Directors. "That experience opened my mind to a world of art."
The collection — started several years before Wake Forest even had an art department — was the brainchild of the late Mark Reece ('49), then dean of men and College Union adviser. In the summer of 1963, he drove two students, Ted Meredith ('64, P '88) and David Forsythe ('64), to New York City, accompanied by Dean of the College (and later Provost) Ed Wilson ('43) and Professor of Religion Allen Easley.
Reece enlisted the help of a friend, New York architect Bob Myers, to open gallery doors and make recommendations. (Myers and Barbara Babcock Millhouse, founder of Reynolda House Museum of American Art, served as advisers during the program's early years.)
The experience was transformational for Meredith, a football player from New Jersey whose sole prior exposure to art was the fact that his parents were professional dancers and his younger brother was an art history major at Harvard.
"When I think back at things that happened in school and how they may have changed my life, this is one of the things that stands out more than anything," he says. "I really gained an appreciation for art, without having an education in art."
Meredith went on to have a career in publishing and served as publisher of Architectural Record in the 1980s. He and his wife, Nancy ('66), established a scholarship for art majors at Wake Forest about ten years ago.
Meredith's group returned to campus with a dozen pieces that first year, including a linoleum cut and lithograph by Picasso and a small painting by Elaine de Kooning, wife of the acclaimed artist Willem de Kooning.
"What is really interesting to me, to look back on it, is that we set good standards in that we purchased a number of different media and styles of the day, and from many different geographic areas, three or four outside the U.S., as well as around the country," says Meredith, a past Wake Forest trustee and a current board member of Reynolda House. "It set the stage for generations to come after us and purchase what was popular in their day."
Students build a collection
The buying trip has remained at the heart of the collection. Interested students must take a semester-long contemporary art class and apply to participate on the trip. (The course and the trip are open to students from any major.) Those selected then spend months researching artists, trends, and prices, and making gallery contacts. The goal has always been the same: to purchase the best quality works with the funds available which reflect the trends at the time.
Professor Emeritus of Art Bob Knott, who was the faculty adviser for the program from the mid-1970s until retiring last year, accompanied students on four buying trips, but stressed that the students were always in charge. "It is the students who research the artists, make the gallery or studio appointments with dealers and artists, and have the final say in adding to the collection. It is an invaluable learning opportunity for the students with the bonus of building a wonderful and relevant collection of modern art for the University."
The collection is ever-evolving, he notes, offering insight into changing attitudes, styles, media, and prices, in four-year snapshots of what was popular at the time. "There was a huge boom in prices in the early 1980s, putting major works by more established artists out of reach, so the students had to look harder at emerging artists. It made it more difficult but more interesting. The students have always had a good track record at picking artists who have gone up in value.
"In the early '90s," Knott goes on, "most of the art was social, racial, and gender issues, and the collection reflects those trends. Likewise, in more recent years the collecting illustrates the expanded global art scene by including artists from such countries as China, Korea, and Pakistan. And while there are significant limitations because of the display space available, there has been an effort to include an expanded range of experimental media."
Most of the collection is in the Benson Center, although a few pieces are in Reynolda Hall and the Scales Fine Arts Center, on Davis Field, and in other locations. The collection's iconic image, Vincent with Open Mouth (Alex Katz, 1970) hung in Reynolda Hall's Green Room for decades, but is not currently on display.
Assistant Professor of Art Jay Curley, who joined the faculty in 2008, taught the required art course in the fall of 2008 and experienced his first art-buying trip last spring when he took eight students to New York, accompanied by LeighAnn Hallberg, a lecturer in art, and Kathy Arnett, the Student Union adviser.
"It is amazing to watch the students grow over the course of the experience," he says. "In the fall, at the start of the process, they are overwhelmed and slightly intimidated by the New York gallery system. By the end, they are on their mobile phones walking through Chelsea bargaining with these same galleries. Their hard work and newfound expertise breeds confidence."
Geoffrey Barton ('05), who recently completed a master's in architecture at N.C. State University, recalls visiting thirteen art galleries, an art fair, an artist's studio, and a printmaking shop during the 2005 trip. His group returned to campus with five pieces, including James Casebere's Spanish Bath (Vertical) (2003) and Carroll Dunham's Hat on Shoulder (2002).
"It is still one of the most memorable and valuable experiences I have from my undergraduate years," he said. "I have followed the artists' work that we studied since then and have even seen a few of their works turn up in visits to major museums. It has been exciting to follow the careers of artists who were just getting their start when we contemplated buying their works."
The final decisions are still hashed out in a New York City hotel room with students comparing their notes and arguing for the pieces that they think should be added to the collection. "It was a huge learning experience," recalls J. D. Wilson. "We learned collaboration and teamwork; we engaged in intellectual conversation, why this artist and not this one; we had to set priorities and operate within a budget; and we had to take risks."
Discovering a passion for art — and a career
Many of the students who participated on the art-buying trips have gone on to have careers in the arts or, like Wilson and Meredith, to become prominent arts patrons. "It's really influenced a core group of students," notes Knott. "We have a pretty strong contingent in New York in the art world — at museums and galleries, and on (arts) boards."
Mary Leigh Cherry ('97), who went on the 1997 trip, now owns a top-tier art gallery, Cherry and Martin, in Los Angeles. (Works by several artists from her gallery were shown in an exhibition in the Hanes Gallery in 2008.)
As a student, she helped purchase pieces by Kiki Smith (Untitled (Mouth), 1993, Lari Pittman (This Landscape beloved and despised, continues regardless, 1989), and Vija Celmins (Untitled, 1995), among others; as a gallery owner she has met all three artists and works regularly with a gallery owner she met as a student.
An art history major, she said her interests changed from art conservation to contemporary art after she went on the buying trip. "I got turned on to modern and contemporary art, when I thought I would have gone towards a more classical route. You never know what effect what you do as an undergraduate will later have on your life."
Kendall Scully Rabun ('01), who participated on the 2001 trip, is now a specialist in 19th century European art at Sotheby's in New York City. Her group was responsible for one of the more controversial pieces in the collection — Lazy Boy Crucifix (Christopher Chiappa, 1999) — and one of the more unusual, a digitally generated resin casting of a distorted telephone (Robert Lazzarini, 2000).
"The opportunity to do what we did was incredible," she says. "It's easy to look back in hindsight and judge which purchases were 'right' or 'wrong' but I think the importance of the trip was the totality of the experience, a unique learning opportunity that empowered students beyond what any undergraduate could ever imagine."
Tiefenthaler would like to see more students and professors take advantage of the collection. While faculty in the art department often utilize the collection in their classes, the University's Teaching and Learning Center is exploring ways that other faculty can create interdisciplinary courses that use the collection.
Probably no one but Mark Reece ever imagined what the art collection would ultimately mean to Wake Forest and its students. In 1969, he offered his modest hope for the collection: "I believe that the end results, not many years from now, will be a collection of some significance of which we can all be proud."
Special thanks to University art collections curator Heather Childress for her assistance, and to Reynolda House Museum of American Art for sharing information collected for the exhibit, Now/Then: A Journey in Collecting Contemporary Art at Wake Forest University.
In addition to Bob Knott, professors of art Harry Titus and David Faber served as “de facto” curators for the collection before Kathryn McHenry was hired in 1997 as both assistant gallery director and collections curator. She established professional standards for the collection and focused attention on its value with the successful “Jewels of the Crown” exhibition in 2001. Heather Childress was hired in 2004 to oversee the University's art collections, including the Student Union Collection.
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