Today: Jun 16, 2024

Hidden art gallery on hold

Michael Bellmore, Staff Writer:
Past a locked gate in the Old Student Center, an empty hallway leads to a locked door. Behind it is an old kitchen, and in that kitchen is more than $1,000,000 worth of paintings and sculptures–everything from portraits to African statues. Southern’s art collection sits there in boxes and in plastic, unused and wrapped in bubble wrap, in stacks and on shelves. Most pieces are
shrouded in packing material, but some are displayed on metal racks for no one in particular.
“The art collection here has been sort of a sore subject for many years. We’ve never really–except for one year–officially had a gallery here at Southern,” said Cort Sierpinski, a professor of art at Southern who is the closest thing to a steward of the collection that Southern has.
The one year that Sierpinski referred to was back before the renovation of Buley Library. Sierpinski said the Pajeski Auditorium in the old library had been converted for use as a gallery. “When we had the exhibitions in that gallery for that one year, it was an amazing experience for students as well as faculty,”
Sierpinski said. “We had graduating student shows. We had shows from the permanent collection. We had a show of the African art collection.”
But, Sierpinski said, this blossoming of activity for the art department did not last long. At the end of the year, the old Buley Library was shuttered for renovations. During the renovations, the gallery was used as storage space for both Special Collections’ rare books and for Southern’s art collection.
On Nov. 21, 2006, disaster struck. A water main broke.
“There was probably like six feet of water in the gallery,” Sierpinski said. “There was approximately 1300 pieces of art down in that storage area of the gallery, of what was the gallery.”
Within days, Sierpinski said a group from the Chicago Conservation Center flew in to save the collection. They loaded up trucks and drove everything back to Chicago, where they did their initial triage. Most pieces were okay–some pieces needed only drying, while some needed cleaning, Sierpinski said. But some were so far gone that the cost of restoring them was more than the worth of the art itself.
“There was probably another 300 or so that we had restored,” said Sierpinski. “There wasn’t a lot that were total losses.”
The collection, Sierpinski said, consists of African art, contemporary and pre-Colombian–among others. After the art was saved, it was returned to Southern–some of it as recently as this year–to its new home: a kitchen in a building scheduled for renovations.
“It’s not proper stewardship of things that were donated for the university. Or, even if they were purchased, they’re purchased with money that was raised essentially for the taxpayer,” Sierpinski said. “This belongs to the State of Connecticut, and it’s a shame that it’s just sitting here like this.”
The future of the art collection, Sierpinski said, is hinged on whether Southern gets a gallery or not.
“If you look at most institutions of this size,” Sierpinski said, “they have not only galleries dedicated for their collection, but they also have–at least–a full-time person as gallery director who’s hired to oversee the collection.”
Selase Williams, the provost at SCSU, said a permanent gallery would be of tremendous value to the university.
“It gives additional exhibition space for students and faculty on the campus. It would also give us space for traveling exhibitions, of either artwork or of other kinds of exhibitions,” Williams said. “In addition to that, a gallery like that would also be a prominent gathering place for donors to the university, for having receptions of various types with prospective donors, business leaders in the community, other educators from the area.”
As it stands now, the exhibition space available to the art department is woefully limited; Sierpinski called it a “glorified hallway.” A senior graduating this May, Ali Griffin, who is concentrating in ceramics in the Studio Arts Department, said she feels “shafted” that her senior show will be displayed there.
“We only get our stuff up for a week because the space is, you know, it’s not really a gallery space. It really should be just for critiques,” Griffin said. “In order to squeeze all seniors in we need to double up on shows, so that means we only get to show like four or five of our own pieces, as opposed to having a gallery space and being able to show for more than a week.”
According to Sierpinski, having a gallery takes more than just room. Office space is required, he said, as well as other considerations, including what floor it may be on, or whether or not it’s situated in a building with a loading dock. He said a worrying lack of communication exists between the administration and the art department.
“They’ve not talked to the department at all,” Sierpinski said, “in terms of what the needs would be for a gallery.”
“The art faculty will be brought in at the appropriate time to talk about the appropriate location for the gallery, what special needs they might have,” said Williams.
In the meantime, Williams said the plan is to set up a gallery on the second floor of the Buley Library once renovations are finished. Where stacks once would have gone, Buley’s increasing reliance on electronic information has freed up space that would not have been available otherwise.
“There is going to be designated space in the library for a gallery,” said Williams.
For now, though, the art remains in storage.
“We just have not had the space,” Williams said.

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