Museum's coming and going art

3:30:26 PM CDT - Thursday, November 04, 2004

By Melissa Lacey

When your home storage closets are full, you sort through them to make room for new things. The Ulrich Museum of Art staff have faced a similar task in recent years.

Proper preservation of artwork requires ample storage space something the museum had run out of when director David Butler arrived on the scene four years ago.

While building its initial collection in the '70s and '80s, the museum accepted large groups of artwork from donors, since tax laws favored large donations then. The customary practice left the museum with too many pieces from the same artist, and with pieces whose quality or style of work was not up to the standards of the collection.

With thousands of pieces in the museum's storage vault and the ability to display only about 100 works at any given time, Butler had a goal streamline the collection to refocus on showcasing first-rate modern art and emerging contemporary artists.


David Butler, director, and Katie Geha, curator, stand in the storage vault of WSU's Ulrich Museum, where artwork in the museum's collection is stored. In the past few years, the Ulrich has successfully auctioned about 1,000 pieces of art that didn't fit the Ulrich's niche, funneling more than $500,000 back into its acquisition fund.

Photo by Inside WSU

In the past four years, the Ulrich has successfully auctioned about 1,000 pieces, funneling more than $500,000 back into its acquisition fund.

 "It's about a choice between things in the back of the storage vault versus new art that will generate interest in the community," Butler said. "To me, art that's put away is art that's not doing anybody any good. If it were up to me, I'd have it all out on display, but that's not possible."

Following suit with a nationwide movement, the Ulrich began sending extraneous pieces to auction. When removing something from the collection, standard professional procedures are followed.

"Removal of works from the collection is something we take very seriously," Butler said. "It is done very carefully and thoughtfully with lots of opportunities for review over time."

First, museum staff makes a recommendation based on standard criteria that include duplicate pieces from the same artist, those not of sufficient quality or in bad condition, or those not fitting the museum's mission.

Next, the Wichita State Foundation's advisory art committee and board must approve removal of the piece, since the foundation owns the Ulrich collection.

Donors are always notified when works are being sent to auction in Chicago. Auctioning is the fairest way to get the most value for each piece, Butler said.

"Almost all the donors have been completely understanding about the removal process, especially when they know that all proceeds go directly back into buying something new for the collection that really fits our mission," he said.

That mission is to serve as Wichita's premier venue for modern and contemporary works. Modern art hails from the 20th century and contemporary art implies works created within the past 20 years, he said.

Helping the Ulrich acquire new art is where the Ulrich's new curator, Katie Geha, comes in.
Last month Geha traveled to New York to scout out potential purchases for the museum's annual "New Art Event" held in March. She'll travel to Miami on another art-buying trip in December. She scours magazines and the Internet, researching new artists and galleries.

Geha is compiling artist packets for each member of the Ulrich's acquisitions committee that oversees and grants new purchases. The committee of 12 people includes WSU undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and community members.

For the "New Art Event," Geha estimates she will choose from five to seven pieces that range in price from $4,000 to $50,000, but she plans to spend no more than $25,000 on any one work. The acquisitions committee will make final purchase decisions in January.

While it may seem that Geha has a great job, she faces many challenges in confronting her task. She asks herself numerous questions about each piece. Will it enhance the current collection? In terms of the "New Art Event" show, will it fit with the other pieces? Is it diverse and balanced? Can it be stored? Is it interesting? Will it make people think? Is it good?

Despite the challenges, Geha welcomes the responsibility of choosing new art for the Ulrich.
"While there are many different considerations to make when purchasing a piece, for the most part I trust my intuition and am really enjoying the process," she said.

Nationally, most museums have transitioned from an expansive mode to finding a niche and developing an identity and mission, said Butler.

The Ulrich's sizable acquisitions fund enables staff to consider bigger projects than before, like the limestone arch recently constructed on the southwest corner of the WSU campus by internationally acclaimed British artist Andy Goldsworthy.

"Now we're making smarter use of our resources," Butler said. "We feel like the things we've acquired in the last few years have generated a lot of excitement and interest."

New media pieces like inflatable art, videos and computer-generated works on CD have generated a buzz with museum goers, said Butler, and such pieces have another benefit as well.

"They don't take too much room to store," he said.

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