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Commentary: Local universities offer first rate art museums

Nancy Kranzberg

When thinking of going to a museum to view art masterpieces and other high quality visual works of art, one might think of the St. Louis Art Museum or even the Missouri History Museum.

We often forget the free and open to the public university museums of art. There are two or even three of these museums not to be missed.

The Mildred Lane Kemper Museum of Art on the campus of Washington University is first rate and you don't have to be an alumnae or involved with the university to enjoy works by such greats as Rembrandt, Picasso, Gaugin, Matisse, Joseph Stella, Max Beckmann, Robert Motherwell and the list goes on.

According to Sabine Eckmann, Director and Chief Curator of Art at the Kemper Museum, it is one of the oldest collecting university museums in this country. It opened in 1881 as the St. Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts, part of Washington University. From the beginning, the Museum has focused on acquiring the significant art of its time. The contributions of such leaders as Halsey C. Ives, who conceived of this teaching museum following the social ideals of John Ruskin and the British Arts and Crafts movement, are foregrounded. This also includes the German emigre art historian and Renaissance scholar H.W. Janson and his acquisitions of predominantly European modernism, establishing Washington University's museum as a gallery of modern art; the Renaissance specialist Frederick Hartt, who during and after World War II served with the Monument Men, rescuing looted and displaced art throughout Europe, and who was one of the first to acquire Abstract Expressionist art in St. Louis.

Carmon Colangelo, Dean of the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts says, "I am constantly reminded of how fortunate we are to have this remarkable resource. The collection supports a wide range of study in the humanities, social sciences and medicine across campus and beyond, particularly enriching the interdisciplinary study of art, architecture and design that is central to the mission of the School.

There is still time to view "Real, Radical, Psychological--The Collection on Display." This is the largest selection of the permanent collection ever shown and on February 10 three new exhibitions will open. One example is "Spectacle and Leisure in Paris: From Degas to Picasso" in the Garen Gallery and curated by Elizabeth Childs, the Etta and Mark Steinberg Professor of Art History and chair of the Department of Art History and Archaeology in Arts and Sciences.

And not to be neglected is SLUMA, The Saint Louis University Museum of Art, headed by the vivacious Petruta Lipan. Completed in 1900, the four story Beaux Arts building originally served as the home of the St. Louis Club. For its first quarter century, the building was the center of St. Louis social life and was visited by a number of U.S. presidents including Cleveland, McKinley, Taft, Roosevelt, Wilson and Harding.

The building had a minor fire and the club sold it to Saint Louis University, but it didn't become the art museum until 2000. On the first floor there are two galleries, the Aronson and Community Galleries, for temporary exhibitions and a classroom. The second floor features selections from the University's permanent collection. The Collection of the Western Jesuit Missions is displayed on the third floor. The selections displayed on the fourth floor illustrate the artistic traditions particularly of Japan and China.

The historic Samuel Cupples House, is one of the rare examples of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture in St. Louis. It dates to 1888 and houses the university's collection, featuring a comprehensive collection of American and European glass, and includes The Eleanor Turshin Glass Collection which includes the largest Steuben glass collection west of the Mississippi River.

There are other galleries of art at the university and there’s MOCRA. The Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, has its own director, Father Terrence Dempsey. And the university even has a sculpture park, The Lay Center, on 20 acres of land in Louisiana, MO.

UMSL has the St. Louis Mercantile Library which is really also a museum. It was founded in 1846 and has been housed at the university since 1986. Among the collections are the John W. Barringer III National Railroad Library which includes 10,000 volumes, 600 feet of railroad documents and photographs, the Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library which includes river artifacts and artwork, signed and complete first edition double elephant folio of John James Audubon's, "Birds of America," Harriet Hosmer's marble sculpture, "Beatrice Cenci” (1857), and four portraits of Winnebago chiefs by Charles Deas.

One could spend endless amounts of time feasting on all the cultural experiences these university collections have to offer without spending a penny!

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than thirty years on numerous arts related boards.

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