Art in the Basement, a Treasure Unseen

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Porcelain birds perch in the Howard building, and a place for ivories has been carved out of the Alexander Brest Gallery. University publications and hanging plaques thoroughly identify hundreds of artworks on display throughout campus, but they leave untold the ongoing stories of Jacksonville University’s invisible art.

Jack Turnock, the gallery director and an associate professor of art, is among the handful of people who have interacted with JU’s trove of unseen art. According to him, the university houses hundreds of pieces that are not on display.

“We just don’t have room to display it all,” said Turnock. “The work is a variety of different types of art – prints, contemporary, antique, a lot of Pre-Columbian artwork, sculptures as well as practical pieces like vessels and pots […] Asian art, paintings, watercolors.”

Turnock said that these pieces will usually not be rotated out with works that are currently on display. They are mostly stored in the basement of the Phillips Fine Arts Building, but some of the pieces most sensitive to humidity are kept in a central room in the Davis College of Business.

Some of the pieces were purchased decades ago, said Turnock, but most are donated. The permanent collections housed in the Brest Gallery include the donations of some of the university’s biggest supporters of the arts, including the Brest family, the Mussallem family and Dr. Walter P. Scott.

“Dr. Walter Scott from St. Augustine donated most of the Pre-Columbian [works],” said Turnock. “There’s about a thousand pieces. It’s probably the biggest collection of Pre-Columbian works in the southeastern United States.”

Cheryl Sowder, associate professor of art history, edited the 1994 catalogue that explains the gallery’s collections. She said that much of the university’s current store of Pre-Columbian artwork can be traced to what was once known as the Jacksonville Art Museum.

“In the ’90s, that museum decided to completely change its character, move downtown and become the Museum of Modern Art,” said Sowder. “They didn’t feel the need to hang onto things that were not part of the 20th century.”

As a result, the Pre-Columbian artwork first moved to the Cummer Museum of Arts and Gardens, where Sowder was then serving as visiting scholar. Because they reflected the specialty of the museum director at the time, the university expected him to buy the pieces. Two years passed, and he did not.

“[The Cummer] deaccessioned the collection, and they literally gave it to us,” said Sowder.

The collection included the three stelae now in front of the Phillips building, which are replicas. The Museum of Modern Art, now the Museum of Contemporary Art, also gave the university the 1960s-era abstract sculpture that stands between the parking lots in front of the Howard building.

Sowder teaches a course on Mayan and Aztec art, and on exam days she brings her class into the Brest Gallery to describe some of the pieces Scott donated. Sowder said that she would also like to be able to use the stored Pre-Columbian art in her teaching, but she recognizes that unboxing the pieces exposes them to the dangers of theft and damage. The philosophy that guides her in her archaeological field work, she said, applies here too.

“Don’t dig up something you can’t protect,” she said.

According to Turnock, no restoration efforts take place on campus. Art restoration is a highly specialized, technical field.

“What we attempt to do is package things up nicely and store them so they’re not damaged,” he said. “Everything is stored in pH-neutral containers.”

The art may be safe in those containers, but its function is uncertain.

To judge from Sowder and Turnock’s careful responses, the answer seems to be that handling art, especially donated art, is a delicate matter. The recipient wants both to adequately care for the art and to avoid giving the donor any cause for offense. There are issues of space, issues of taste and issues of insurance. Sowder said that JU once approached another southern university about buying the Pre-Columbian art, but she declined giving details about the proposed sale. Neither Derek Hall, vice president for university relations and external affairs, nor Bill Hill, dean of fine arts, could be reached for comment.

Sowder said that she would love to see art galleries incorporated into a renovated campus library. Such galleries could house some of the art currently in storage, displaying both permanent and traveling collections.

Another trend within the art world is repatriation or returning museum pieces to their countries of origin. Last year, for instance, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art reached an agreement with Egypt to return 19 artifacts from Tutankhamen’s tomb that had been improperly exported. JU may opt to follow suit, returning sculptures to such countries as Mexico, Belize and Honduras.

Every work of art serves simultaneously as a storyteller and a character in a broader historical narrative. JU’s unseen artwork heralds from a variety of countries, eras and previous collections. What will become of those pieces is currently unclear, but the decision will add still more layers of significance to their stories.

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