Grinnell College, a highly ranked private institution in central Iowa, was founded by abolitionists in 1846. This foundation in civil rights continues to inform its mission: the college aims to prepare its students to “serve the common good” and work toward social justice.1 These principles extend to its collection of art, which is, as the collection website explains, “distinguished by its social and political commentary by artists who have taken up pen and stylus as weapons against oppression, exploitation and human folly.”2 A recent exhibition at the college’s Faulconer Gallery, “Crossing the Line: Selections from the Grinnell College Art Collection,” included approximately 50 antiquities, maps and works on paper from the 17th century to the present, and provided timely insight into how cultural artifacts help people navigate difficult times. The exhibition was curated by Daniel Strong, associate director and curator of exhibitions, and Kay Wilson, curator of the collection. Wilson and Lesley Wright, director of the Faulconer Gallery, spoke with Sarah Kirk Hanley about Grinnell’s commitment to political art, and how the collection is serving the students and public at this remarkable moment in our national history.3
Sarah Kirk Hanley When did the college formulate its commitment to collecting sociopolitical art?
Lesley Wright The collection has existed since the turn of the 20th century and grew in the 1960s, but blossomed into a true resource for students in the early ’80s when the print study room was founded and Kay came on as curator. In 1999, the Faulconer Gallery was established and at that time we reconfigured the mission statement to highlight our commitment to sociopolitical art. Kay had laid the groundwork, but we formalized it and brought it to the fore.
Kay Wilson I consider Ralph Shikes’s book The Indignant Eye: The Artist as Social Critic in Prints and Drawings from the Fifteenth Century to Picasso an important guide to my work as a curator.4 We have included many of the artists he discusses in the Grinnell College collection: Pieter Bruegel the Elder,5 Jacques Callot, Francisco Goya, William Hogarth, James Gillray, Honoré Daumier, Ben Shahn and so on. We have two complete sets of the fifth and sixth editions of Goya’s Disasters of War, as well as several individual plates from the first edition. We also have many individual plates from varying editions of the Caprichos. Some of our Daumier impressions are rare examples with hand-written captions—one also has the censor’s stamp. We have a full run of Hogarth’s etchings and engravings, but they are from the posthumous 1837 edition and we are trying to replace those with lifetime impressions to reflect more accurately the artist’s intent.
SKH What was the collection like before you joined the staff, Kay?
KW The first objects that came into the collection were a group of about 28 Turner engravings donated by Maude Little Macy around 1908. It grew very little until the ’60s, when Grinnell received a Ford Foundation grant and used those funds to purchase works by major printmakers such as Dürer, Rembrandt and Picasso; they also acquired a few drawings. We later received significant gifts of Piranesi etchings and Edward Curtis photogravures in the ’60s and ’70s.
SKH So the approach was more traditional before you came.
LW Yes, but the Ford Foundation acquisitions set a basis in printmaking history that we have been able to maintain and build upon. In addition to the sociopolitical collection, we have been adding selected Old Master prints to make sure those areas are as strong as they need to be for purposes of teaching.
KW We just acquired a beautiful Ghisi print, The Judgment of Paris.6
SKH Are there other gifts, grants or private collections that have been fundamental to the collection?
LW In the ’70s, Marie-Louise and Samuel R. Rosenthal endowed the college with a significant fund solely for the purchase and care of art, and this remains an important source of funds. Then in 2001, Roz and John Goldman offered us their German Expressionist print collection [see below and “A Socially Acceptable Form of Addiction” in this issue]. This is a wonderful group of German Expressionist works that has proven essential to the collection: we use it for teaching purposes quite frequently.
SKH Tell me about an acquisition that was particularly sweet or hard-won.
LW Shortly after we acquired the Goldman collection, we independently located an important watercolor by George Grosz that fit perfectly. The purchase was a financial stretch for us, and there was some opposition at the administrative level for that reason, so when we finally received approval it felt like a real win. We keep finding new gems to flesh out our representation of that period. For instance, we have been actively acquiring issues of Der Sturm and we recently purchased a Nolde etching.7
KW The Nolde was important because it helps explain the complexities of the Expressionist movement.
LW We also have a long-term loan of late Soviet-era prints created by state-endorsed or “official” artists that gives students insight into what it means for an artist to have to literally “toe the party line” in order to have a career.8
KW These are artists who were in the Artists’ Union of the USSR—you had to be a member in order to get supplies, receive a stipend and have exhibitions. The subject matter and style of their work was dictated by the government and intended for use in the schools.
LW It is such a different function for art than what we are accustomed to in this country, and these works are very useful for our Russian and Eastern European studies faculty.
KW We also have a group of about 25 works by an artist who worked outside of the system, Aleksandr Kalugin.9 He spent a great deal of time in confinement; many of the drawings we have were done while he was incarcerated or undergoing questionable psychiatric treatment and use poor-quality paper with frayed spiral-bound edges. His work provides a marked contrast to the Socialist Realism produced by the state-endorsed artists.
SKH What is the earliest-dated work in the collection?
KW We have a few antiquities but they are difficult to date with certainty. In the works on paper category, the earliest piece is from 1240—a leaf from a pocket bible on vellum.
SKH How about the most recent?
LW John Buck’s woodcut Cat (2016), on view in “Crossing the Line.”
SKH That brings us to contemporary art. I know you have a lot of work by Enrique Chagoya, but which other politically inclined artists are strongly represented in the collection?
LW We have several prints by William Kentridge.
KW Yes, in 2004 the Faulconer Gallery was the first U.S. institution to mount a retrospective of Kentridge’s prints and the college published the first catalogue raisonné of his graphic work with that exhibition.10 One of the reasons he agreed to show here was because he was impressed with the collection we had built, our mission and the way we used our collection.
KW We have also organized a major exhibition of another South African contemporary artist, Diane Victor, and acquired her Disasters of Peace portfolio (2001–03), which is a response to atrocities—large and small—in the daily news of her country. We also have her complete Birth of a Nation portfolio (2009–10).11
LW We also recently acquired a number of works by contemporary artists from Africa, the Middle East and Asia who now work in the U.S.: we just added a box set by the Egyptian artist Ganzeer and several prints by Marcia Kure, who is from Nigeria, and Hung Liu, from China. We have been working with our advisory committee to address other gaps in the collection, and we recently dedicated most of our annual funds to acquiring a work by Adrian Piper.12 It is also on view in “Crossing the Line.”
KW For me, the Piper was the piece that was most satisfying to add to the collection. We spoke with the artist several times, explaining how we intended to use it and how it would fit into the collection and our mission as a college. She helped us to locate a work that would fit our needs.
KW We have also been actively acquiring political poster box sets by artists’ collectives such as JustSeeds, Culture Strike and Mission Comics.
LW Artists’ books are another category we collect. They present challenges in terms of exhibition and student use, but we experimented in “Crossing the Line” with allowing visitors to handle them, in keeping with the artists’ intentions.
SKH How do you secure ongoing support for the collection?
LW In addition to the Rosenthal endowment we just mentioned, there are five other smaller endowment funds. The sum is not princely but it allows us to make important purchases of works on paper, and approximately a third of our annual acquisitions come in the form of gifts. Finally, we are fostering a new leadership council who advise on and contribute to acquisitions, facilities and strategic initiatives; we used some of those funds recently to renovate the Print and Drawing Study Room.
SKH Are all three of you involved in acquisitions decisions?
LW Yes, we also have a committee but we only use it selectively: when we have been offered a large or problematic gift, or want to create a strategy for acquiring something special. Generally we have license to work independently but keep the committee informed.
SKH The website states you have about 5,000 works in all—do you have a more accurate number to share?
KW Yes, we counted them this week: 4,522 works of art on paper.
LW There is also a small but noteworthy collection of African objects, as well as several Pueblo ceramics, a few paintings, sculptures and antiquities, but 85–90% of the collection are works on paper.
SKH And is that group heavily dominated by prints?
LW Yes, in fact, we have only recently begun to build the photography collection. We only had a few photographs when the Faulconer gallery was founded, but Dan [Strong] has really pursued acquisitions in that area, including, most recently, a number of works by Gordon Parks.
LW Printmaking is offered as a major in the art department, but photography is not even taught on campus; at one point we had an art historian here who covered the history of photography, but we’re not sure whether that will resume. We have to tread carefully with collecting in this area because we aren’t sure how often it will be used.
SKH Tell me some of the ways that the collection is utilized by students and faculty.
LW We get a lot of professors using the collection for various reasons: this fall the Hogarth collection was used by professors in history and French to supplement their coursework on the opera and the Enlightenment, respectively. We are always happy to see interdisciplinary learning applications for the collection.
KW Lessons are held here in the Print and Drawing Study Room and then the students are given an object-based assignment. They come back to study a chosen work and write a response or essay.
LW On an average year, I’d say we cycle between 1,000–2,000 visitors through the study room. Most of those are in classes, so it’s pretty actively used.
SKH Do you have student interns and work study programs?
KW We have student employees who work here. We are in the process of photographing and digitizing the collection and they have done all of that work.
SKH Yes, you have an impressive number of images on your online database.13
LW We have made great progress but there are some obstacles, such as oversized items and copyright issues we have to negotiate. We also involve our students in curating quite frequently. Sometimes we have the right intern who is interested in works on paper and we give them an opportunity to organize an exhibition. They often become very excited about works that have fallen off our radar, and this helps us to see the collection afresh. Also, every three years or so the art history department teaches an exhibition seminar around a specific topic and the class curates an exhibition from the collection and publishes a catalogue. Those undergraduates come out of here with a published piece of writing.
SKH Is there a piece that you find particularly relevant to issues in the news today?
LW Aside from the contemporary political poster box sets mentioned before, perhaps the most pertinent is a large cycle of 21 engravings titled A Time of Malfeasance by Virginia Myers from 1974, in response to the Watergate scandal.14 It spans a large wall—the works vary in size and fit together in an explosive flow. Her work was not generally political but she was reacting viscerally to the scandal.
SKH What was the impetus behind organizing “Crossing the Line”?
LW Late last spring we learned the Center for the Humanities, an academic center of the college, was organizing a year-long series of events on the topic of “Rethinking Global Cultures,” and we thought that many works from the collection would speak to this theme. This is the first time we have organized an exhibition in response to an academic program on campus.
SKH How has reception been from the students, faculty and community?
LW Just this week we have had classes from anthropology, French and art, as well as a group of visitors from Waterloo, Iowa; they were very taken with the exhibition and spent a lot of time looking. But I think the most rewarding feedback was posted on the Grinnell art student group Facebook page: “I walked into Faulconer Gallery and stood there for 10 minutes with my mouth open.” I think they are really astonished that we own all of these things. It is one of the main reasons we do exhibitions like this—to remind the students, faculty and public that there are resources here at their disposal.
The Grinnell College print collection is housed in the Print and Drawing Study Room in Burling Library and is open to visitors by appointment; see http://www.grinnell.edu/about/visit/spaces/print-and-drawing-study-room.
The Goldman Collection of German Expressionist Prints
John L. and Roslyn (Roz) Bakst Goldman began collecting art on their honeymoon in 1959, and got “hooked” on prints. They built a library, took classes in printmaking and art history, and amassed an important collection of German Expressionist prints at a time when the movement was undervalued. Roz eventually earned a Master’s degree in art history and became a certified appraiser and art adviser. When the Goldmans eventually decided to focus on contemporary work, they wanted their German Expressionist collection to go to an “educational institution where it would inspire looking, teaching and research.”15 Roz’s former employee Daniel Strong approached them about Grinnell’s interest, and they recognized the right fit. When the collection arrived in 2001, it numbered 69 prints of various media by major artists of the Brücke and Neue Sachlichkeit movements in Germany, as well as affiliated artists in other countries. Among the artists are Erich Heckel, Franz Marc, Ernst Barlach, Lionel Feininger, Oskar Kokoschka, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, George Grosz, Max Beckmann and Käthe Kollwitz. At Grinnell, the Goldman Collection is used regularly for instruction and has been shown at the Faulconer Gallery in 2002 and 2015.16 In the latter exhibition, German Expressionist works were juxtaposed with the Goldman’s newer acquisitions by contemporary artists, including William Kentridge, who mentioned that their collection had been a factor in his decision to show his work at the Faulconer. “That was definitely a ‘full circle’ moment for us,” Roz Goldman recalls.17
- Official mission statement: http://www.grinnell.edu/about/mission.
- As described on the art collection’s webpage: http://www.grinnell.edu/about/offices-services/faulconer-gallery/exhibitions/art-collection.
- Interview conducted by online teleconference, 10 Feb 2017.
- Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.
- An engraving by Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel I, Nemo Non/Everyman Looks for His Own Profit (ca. 1558), Holstein 152 i/ii; see: http://digital.grinnell.edu/islandora/object/faulconer-art%3A2270.
- Engraving (1555), Boorsch/Lewis 16iii/iii; see: http://digital.grinnell.edu/islandora/object/faulconer-art%3A6260.
- Grinnell now holds 96 issues of Der Sturm (Berlin: Herwarth Walden, 1910–1932); the Nolde etching is Heimat (1905), Schiefler/Mosel vii/ix, tonal etching in blue-green ink, a unique impression of this state from the Schiefler collection; see: http://digital.grinnell.edu/islandora/object/faulconer-art%3A6250.
- The Brenda Horrigan ’88 and Eric Johnson ’88 Collection of Soviet Graphic Art is on long-term loan to the Grinnell College Art Collection. It comprises approximately 500 prints in various media produced between 1966 and 1976; see: http://digital.grinnell.edu/islandora/object/grinnell:soviet-graphic-art.
- Aleksandr Kalugin (Estonian/Russian, b. 1949) is a self-trained artist who worked outside the Soviet system and was confined to Butyrka Prison as well as psychiatric hospitals on several occasions before the dissolution of the USSR; see: Aleksandr Kalugin and Tamara Kalugina, Aleksandr Kalugin, khudozhnik (Moscow: [publisher not identified], 2006).
- Susan Stewart and Kay Wilson, William Kentridge Prints (Grinnell: Grinnell College: 2004), revised and reprinted in 2006 (Johannesburg and New York: David Krut Publisher, 2006). The exhibition traveled for several years: Faulconer Gallery, Bucksbaum Center for the Arts, Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa 1 Oct–12 Dec 2004; the College of Wooster Art Museum, Ebert Art Center, Wooster, Ohio, 18 Jan–6 Mar 2005; Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, 9 Apr–16 Jul 2006; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 9 Sep–17 Dec 2006; Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA, 29 Sep 2007–6 Jan 2008.
- The exhibition was “Of Fables and Folly: Diane Victor, Recent Work,” 28 Jan–17 Apr 2011. A PDF exhibition catalogue is available at http://retro.grinnell.edu/files/downloads/VictorCatalog.pdf.
- Adrian Piper, Vanilla Nightmares #14 (1986), charcoal on printed newspaper, 14 x 23 1/2 inches.
- See: http://digital.grinnell.edu/islandora/object/grinnell:faulconer.
- Virginia Myers (1927–2015) was a professor of printmaking for 50 years at the University of Iowa and worked primarily in engraving.
- Daniel Strong, Playing it Forward: German Expressionism to Expressionism Today (Grinnell: Grinnell College, 2015), 11. The catalogue presents a full account of the Goldman’s collecting activity, past and present.
- Exhibition catalogues were produced in conjunction with both exhibitions: see Strong above; and Jenny Anger, et al., Walking a Tightrope: German Expressionist Printmaking, 1904-1928: The Goldman Collection of German Expressionist Prints, Grinnell College Art Collection, Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College, 1 April-21 April 2002 (Grinnell: Grinnell College: 2002).
- 17. Roslyn Bakst Goldman, “The Evolution of our Print Collection,” in Strong, 21.