Within the walls of the Hilton C. Buley Library lies a vast, 1,500-piece art collection— a collection that has existed since the 1970s, established by Olaf Zeidenberg, a former Southern art professor.
As the priceless collection grew, interest in establishing a functioning gallery, complete with a director, did not. Thus the collection, including works from former faculty members, as well as African, pre-Colombian, and contemporary artworks, remained uncatalogued and untended, tucked away in an exhibition space in the former student center. The artwork remained unprotected and unmonitored.
The neglect was bad, but nothing was as devastating as the wrath of Hurricane Sandy, which left about 1,300 pieces of art immersed in under a foot of water. With the artwork not appraised and uncatalogued, Cort Sierpinski, a Southern ceramics professor and former director of the art collection, was devastated. But Sierpinski quickly began working, ensuring the artwork would get appraised, insured and fixed.
The Chicago Conservation Center, specializing in restoring damaged artwork, came to the university and took the damaged pieces—it immediately tended to the artwork in critical condition, assessed other damaged pieces and advised Sierpinski on which pieces were worth saving and which were a total loss.
After more than half a million dollars were spent on restoring damaged pieces and two thirds of the artwork back in the university’s possession, the collection currently resides in a storage room off of the gallery space in the Hilton C. Buley Library.
In the expanded library gallery space, the current collection can be stored more efficiently, on shelves off the floor and preserved in the boxes. There are also hopes to renovate the room further to include tools, so the art collection can be tended after and catalogued properly, as well as to include an area to actively showcase some of the art, but those plans have been put on hold.
Both Gregory Cochenet, former art collection director and ceramics professor, and Sierpinski agree while expanding the exhibit and renovating the storage space are improvements, as professors continue to care for the collection and teach, the artwork will remain vulnerable.
Professors caring for the collection cannot properly appraise the pieces and their roles as educators take away from the full-time attention this collection needs. Also, the exhibit space in the Hilton C. Buley Library is meant to showcase student art and would leave a majority of Southern’s collection hidden away.
Current collection director and studio art professor Thuan Vu has cared for the collection fulltime for three years and says former Dean of Arts and Sciences Steven Breese donated generously to the art collection as well as granted Vu a great deal of hours away from the classroom in order to tend to the collection. But with the transition to a new dean of arts and sciences and the university budget becoming more scarce, Vu’s hours in the gallery will, ultimately, be slashed as well as any future plans for fulltime gallery care and upkeep.
Vu added, while he was grateful for the time he was granted in the gallery, to be away from the classroom does a disservice to his students as well as the university. He says as long as Southern continues to have professors run and care for the collection, it is less time they are are spending as educators and as professional artists.
Also, as professors spend more time away from the classroom and in the gallery, the university has to compensate by filling the empty courses with adjuncts or by cancelling them completely, says Vu. When the university offers fewer art courses, the program becomes less successful as well as less desirable and by adding more adjuncts, it hereby alters the student to professor ratio.
Above all, while the collection itself remains vast and diverse, growth is stagnant—in order for the collection to grow and in order for people to have the utmost confidence in donating their art to the university, the collection must be cared for, says Sierpinski.
Many have wanted to donate art to the campus in the past, but shied away upon hearing that the art will remain in storage once in the university’s possession, Sierpinski added.
Functional galleries complete with directors are not unheard of, says Vu, with Eastern Connecticut State University, Western Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut and Housatonic Community College all housing them.
Vu says he understands the university’s tough position, saying Southern cannot do what the funds will not currently allow.
But Vu wanted to emphasize how a gallery space is ultimately supposed to serve as a valuable educational tool for students, and by remaining behind closed doors it is doing a disservice to the Southern community.
Mira El Turk, a senior, education major with concentrations in English and art elementary education. She says as a transfer student in her first semester at Southern, she was not aware of the art collection, but wondered how much of an impact interacting with this collection would have had on her education.
“I can’t really see the right texture in [a picture], I can’t actually see it and have that feeling of me experiencing that,” says El Turk. “I can actually see the piece and maybe get inspired to do another piece.”
El Turk added in comparison to the other universities she knows has art collections with galleries, it is regrettable that Southern does not show its.
“That’s sad if we have that amount of art and we can’t even see or admire those arts,” says El Turk.
Mary Spodnick, a junior, psychology major with a minor in studio art, says she became aware of the art collection from working in the Buley gallery last year as an attendant. She says while she wants to see the collection displayed more, she understands the budget constraints inhibiting the university from doing so.
“I think that kind of sucks, but with budget cuts there’s not a lot we could do about it,” says Spodnick. “I wish that we could, but I think it is something that is not feasible.”
Spodnick added that she enjoys Southern’s art program and, while it is undeniable that the collection would have bolstered her education, it does not take away from the program by any means.
“I really like our art program because we get a lot of exposure to a lot of different things,” says Spodnick. “So I don’t think not having the collection available is necessarily hurting our education but it would have enhanced it by that much more.”
By Melissa Nunez