For years, the art collection owned by UC Davis has been an largely unknown entity. Exhibition space at the different iterations of the university’s Richard Nelson gallery has been consistently minuscule, at best. On any given day, just 1 percent of its collection was on exhibit.
The school takes a big step towards vanquishing that obscurity today with the groundbreaking for the $30 million Shrem Museum of Art. The event will include the unveiling of a work by artist William Wiley, a founding member of the UC Davis art department. That large-scale work, called “Gong,” will be displayed in front of the Mondavi Center.
“There are seven new museums that open in any given year in the U.S., but what is different here is this great legacy,” said Rachel Teagle, director of the Shrem Museum. “We’re not starting from scratch here in terms of what our mission is and the story we have to tell.”
That story is rooted in a golden era at UC Davis – between 1960 and 1980 –when renowned artists such as Robert Arneson, Wiley and Wayne Thiebaud taught a generation of artists who became well known in their own right, like sculptor Deborah Butterfield.
The museum building will allow the public, for the first time, to see a larger sample of the collection, which includes 5,000 items. The new building will have 29,000 square feet of interconnected interior and exterior spaces, and is being erected directly across the street and southeast of the Mondavi Center.
In 2011, Napa Valley vintner Jan Shrem and his wife, Maria Manetti Shrem, donated $10 million to the museum building project. That gift became a crucial part of the university’s two-decade-long plan to get a museum built at UC Davis. The new museum will cost an additional $5 million to staff and become operational once open. The university has said it is committed to raising $15 million from tax-exempt bond financing to pay for the building, with the remainder – about $3 million – to be raised privately.
Nearly 65 percent of the collection comprises prints by old masters from the 19th century, said Teagle. The remainder of the works in the collection hail from other eras –some of them ancient and far removed from the Central Valley, such as a selection of Egyptian antiquities and a 10th-century miniature from the Indian subcontinent.
“Many of the pieces have been used for teaching. They are not pieces that have been featured in our campus gallery or in circulation,” said Teagle
However, it is the legacy of the university’s art department that will play biggest at the Shrem museum.
“We want to really continue telling the story of our collective history,” Teagle said. “Because UC Davis has not been great about telling its story. The history of conceptual art in California has been told without nearly enough deference paid to UC Davis.”
She said the museum is looking to bolster its reputation by bringing artists of note to UC Davis for residencies. These will allow them to create a new generation of works that will define a new era of art making on campus, she said.
One challenge faced by the university when it was considering the museum was getting a grip on what exactly was in the collection.
That job fell to collections manager Robin Bernhard, who was hired 10 years ago.
“It took seven years to dig through and catalog,” she said.
Part of the problem was that much of the knowledge about what was in the collection existed in the mind of Richard Nelson, the influential founder of the art department. Nelson proved savvy in picking faculty at UC Davis; many were Bay Area artists who were not yet national names – like Arneson, who came on board in 1962.
When Nelson died of a heart attack in 1971, he took a lot of institutional knowledge about the collection with him, said Bernhard.
Bernhard found the job of cataloging both fascinating and daunting. At times, what she found was expected – like a drawing of a stapler by Thiebaud. In other cases she would be searching for works based upon tales that sounded apocryphal. One of those was a story relayed to her that the collection included one of the first ceramic pieces Butterfield made when she was a graduate student at UC Davis. Butterfield graduated there in 1972.
“I was convinced that she had not done ceramics at Davis,” said Bernhard.
One day she came across a lowly cardboard box. She opened it to find two ceramic horse hooves inside, with no protective wrapping. It did not take long for her to realize her assumption about Butterfield was wrong.
The stash also includes one of the largest collections of Robert Arenson’s ceramics as well as works on paper. The holdings of the collection owe a lot to former faculty who have donated many works. Thiebaud, for instance, has donated more than 300, including antiquities and Japanese woodblocks. Some of the works were ones that Thiebaud used to teach, Bernhard said.
Many of the works in the collection were made in building TB9 on the Davis campus – and some of the more curious works were collaborations between faculty and student.
“It’s these wonderfully strange collaborations that make this collection really rich,” Bernhard said.
The newest works to enter the collection are six screenprints by Andy Warhol that were given to the museum by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the second gift it has received from the foundation. That oldest items in the collection are funerary jars from Thailand that date back to 2100 B.C.
Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.