Through a landmark exhibit and strong permanent collection, Vanderbilt's Fine Arts Gallery is romancing art lovers on campus.
by Kara Furlong
photography by Steve Green
For those who have never been to Vanderbilt’s Fine Arts Gallery – or haven’t darkened its door in a while – there’s no time like the present. Through March 20, visitors to the gallery can view dozens of the best-known works by world-renowned painter and graphic artist Oswaldo Guayasamín.
The name might not be familiar – or roll easily off the tongue – but Guayasamín (1919-1999) was one of the most highly regarded Latin American artists of the 20th century. A contemporary of Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, he first rose to prominence in 1942 with a major exhibit in his native Ecuador. This exhibit caught the attention of a visiting Nelson Rockefeller, then head of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Inter-American Affairs, who purchased five of his paintings and arranged for a United States tour, culminating with an exhibit of his artwork at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Guayasamín’s art is both passionate and political, with much of it concerning the plight of indigenous peoples in Latin America as well as his own opposition to war and political oppression. In the 1960s and ’70s, Guayasamín was openly critical of U.S. imperialism and international policy, a stance that all but quashed his chances of showing his work again in this country during his lifetime. In fact, the current Fine Arts Gallery exhibit is the first of its kind in the United States in more than 50 years.
“Of Rage and Redemption: The Art of Oswaldo Guayasamín is easily the biggest exhibit the gallery has featured, certainly in the last 15 or 16 years, and probably one of the bigger projects predating my tenure in 1992,” said Joseph Mella, director of the Fine Arts Gallery. “It’s quite a large international exhibition – in fact, the Vanderbilt presentation divides it between two galleries.” The Fine Arts Gallery features paintings and drawings by the artist, while a selection of his prints are being exhibited in the gallery at Sarratt Student Center.
So how did a major exhibit of an acclaimed international artist rarely seen in the United States come to premiere at Vanderbilt? Mella credits the collaborative efforts of several people on campus. “It’s just a classic example of what you can do in a university environment – so relatively easier than outside of this kind of structure – because you can draw on the expertise of so many people in different areas of study,” he said.
The idea of bringing Guayasamín’s work to campus was sparked when Carlos Jáuregui, an associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, met the artist’s grandson in Spain in the fall of 2006. When he returned to Vanderbilt, Jáuregui brought Mella and Ted Fischer, director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies, on board. After a series of meetings with a representative from the Fundación Guayasamín on campus later that fall, the Vanderbilt trio traveled to Quito, Ecuador, to finalize the exhibition last March.
“Less than a year later, we have a 100-page, fully illustrated catalog that includes the essays of a number of international scholars as well as Vanderbilt faculty, and a national tour for the exhibit,” Mella said.
Following its stay at the Fine Arts Gallery, Of Rage and Redemption will travel to the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, D.C., for a showing sponsored by Georgetown University; the Museo Alameda in San Antonio; the University Galleries at Florida Atlantic University; the Samek Art Gallery at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania; and then wrap its tour at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, Calif., in late summer 2009. Tens of thousands of people across the country will be exposed to Guayasamín – all thanks to the efforts of the Vanderbilt group.
“He exhibited his work in Moscow and Paris; he won the French Legion of Honor and was recognized by UNESCO with its José Martí Prize. But all the while Guayasamín was never a presence in North America, largely due to the Cold War and his opposition to U.S. foreign policy in Latin America,” Mella said.
“We were greatly successful in booking this show, I think, because there’s such an interest in the artist, and the opportunity to view his work in the United States has been rare, at best.”
Those who visit the exhibit while it’s at Vanderbilt will discover what regular patrons of the Fine Arts Gallery already know: that it’s a destination arts space on campus and within the Nashville community. The gallery, located in the historic Old Gym adjacent to Alumni Lawn and West End Avenue, continuously plays host to visiting exhibits of international note, as well as draws from its own permanent collection of more than 5,500 master works.
The permanent collection predates the gallery itself. It began more than a half-century ago with a gift of 105 Old Master and Modern prints from Anna C. Hoyt of Boston. The gift was cultivated by the late Walter Sharp, a fine arts professor and early arts advocate at the university. “It was through this relationship that a wonderful survey of printmaking – from its earliest forms in 15th-century Germany to 20th-century examples by Picasso, Renoir and others – established a study collection,” Mella said.
When the Department of Fine Arts (now called the Department of History of Art) was formed in the early 1960s, items in the fledgling permanent collection formed the basis of students’ practical study.
“From its inception, the department has firmly believed in the value of students looking at real art objects as opposed to their only studying art through books,” Mella explained. “And you have to think, back in the early ’60s, where in Nashville could one go to see art? There was no Frist; there weren’t nearly as many options as there are today.” Hence, the mission was born to grow a strong in-house collection for study and appreciation.
And grown it has. Today’s permanent collection boasts fine examples of Renaissance and American Impressionist paintings, as well as strengths in Asian art and ceramics, Japanese scroll paintings, ukiyo-e prints and much more.
“Chinese art is another area that we’ve been developing pretty intensively in the last 10 years, primarily through a corps group of donors,” Mella said. “One of them in particular is Chauncey Lowe of Winter Park, Fla., who has given us a number of wonderful, museum-quality objects.”
Over the years, the gallery has steadily increased its holdings through the generosity of independent donors such as Lowe, as well as through alumni gifts of both actual artwork and monetary endowments and memorial funds. Mella uses the latter to purchase art that will strengthen Vanderbilt’s collection even further.
“When we purchase art, we try to look at areas of our collection that haven’t been developed,” he said. “One thing I noticed early on was there was little contemporary art in the collection, so I’ve built on that, including a good amount of work by living contemporary women artists, and in many cases, artists of color. We’ve brought in incredible works by Kara Walker, Kiki Smith, Lorna Simpson, Lesley Dill – all women artists. We don’t limit it to that, but it’s certainly one area we’ve expanded upon while continuing to strengthen the historic collection.
“We want to have world-class art so that students can see: This is what people are doing today; these are the currents of contemporary art. That’s one way we help educate them through these objects.”
In addition to first-hand study, items in the permanent collection are showcase-worthy in their own right. The exhibit to follow Guayasamín at the gallery will be the third installment in a series drawing from the best of the permanent collection, including a painting by American Impressionist Child Hassam. Views from the Collection III will open April 3.
While the Fine Arts Gallery is a natural resource for Vanderbilt arts students, it can be a boon for a larger audience as well.
“With the Guayasamín exhibit, there are several faculty from Spanish and Portuguese – but also the physics department – who plan to bring classes to the gallery. They will be looking at the same material in different ways, which I find fascinating,” Mella said. “Through the outreach efforts of the Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies, there will be workshops for K-12 teachers to get public school students involved.
“We hope that by providing programs that touch on areas in addition to the visual arts – like social justice, like Latin American studies – we can engage a larger segment of the populace.”
Another way Mella does this is by planning exhibits to coincide with what’s happening in the Nashville arts community. A recent gift to the Fine Arts Gallery of 150 original photographs by Andy Warhol are scheduled for a campus exhibit this fall, at the same time a traveling exhibition of film and still photography from the George Eastman House Collection will be on display downtown at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts.
“Discussions have taken place that may result in a course that would complement this new gift of photographs from the Andy Warhol Photographic Legacy Program,” Mella said. “We’re hoping to engage classes in different ways, perhaps organize a seminar taught around these objects. Visitors to the gallery could see the Warhol show here, then continue with a broader survey of photography and film at the Frist.”
The gallery can “build” these opportunities, but will the people come? Engaging a large and varied audience in the arts is no easy task, especially in an age when so much technology and other media – TV, movies, the Internet – abound and distract.
“Audiences genuinely want to be engaged, but part of the problem is that for the last 50 years, our model has been ‘Let’s bring the art to the people,’” said Steven Tepper, associate director of Vanderbilt’s Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy and co-editor of a new book of essays titled Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life.
“In turn, people view art as a ‘precious’ thing and have no prior commitment to it. We need to be transformative in the way we think about engagement. Art has to be personal; it needs to tap in to its audience’s own creative urges.”
A successful instance of this, according to Tepper, is a project that came out of the “Between Word and Image” symposium conducted by the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities last October. The center’s fellows collaborated with Mella to co-curate an exhibit for the gallery, hand-selecting pieces from the permanent collection that emphasized the symposium’s theme. They also commissioned Nashville artist Erika Johnson to create an original installation for the exhibit.
“The key to a creative campus is getting different groups to think about art and art making as ways to engage one another and, more importantly, as ways of knowing about and discovering the world,” Tepper said. “Academics and others across campus – myself included – should consider the Fine Arts Gallery an asset in this regard.”
For its part, the gallery is committed to nurturing a long-term relationship with the campus and beyond. When it comes to engaging an audience, Mella finds comfort in a simple truism.
“I believe people are still interested in authentic experience,” he said. “They’re still looking for that tactile, real relationship with an art object.
“You walk into the Guayasamín exhibit, and it’s evident. The power that art of such caliber has to engage is simply remarkable.”
Monday-Friday, noon-4 p.m.
Saturday-Sunday, 1-5 p.m.
Admission is free.