When the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art opens to the public on Sunday, it will be the culmination of many years of dreams by faculty, students and supporters of the University of California, Davis.
Among the dreamers were Richard L. Nelson, founding art department chairman; Price Amerson, founding director of the campus’ Nelson Gallery; Wayne Thiebaud, one of the first members of the art faculty; Sandy Shannonhouse, Robert Arneson’s widow; and Margrit Mondavi, philanthropist extraordinaire who kicked off the campaign to build the $30 million museum with $1 million in seed money and inspired art lovers Jan Shrem, former owner of Clos Pegase Winery, and his wife, Maria Manetti Shrem, to donate $10 million for the naming rights.
Nelson built his department by hiring artists from the area whose “spirit of defiant provincialism” earned them recognition as courageous innovators both as artists and teachers. Thiebaud remembers Nelson proposing the idea of making and teaching art as a kind of research similar to that done in other disciplines.
He sought artists with differing ideas about aesthetics and teaching philosophy, bringing together a group of outspoken individualists who according to Thiebaud “never agreed on anything and fought all the time.”
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Out of that discord came a spirit of experimentation that produced the innovative and individual visions that brought national and international attention to the artists and the Davis teaching program, which Thiebaud describes: “The program was fluid in that a student who was studying filmmaking could switch to ceramics, and the same was true of the faculty. We all taught painting, printmaking, ceramics.”
“We were interested in having a strong interaction with students,” he continued. “We not so much taught them as treated them as fellow faculty members. Sometimes they even taught classes.”
“Fluid” is also a a term used to describe the Manetti Shrem’s unconventional building, which like downtown Sacramento’s Golden 1 Arena combines indoor and outdoor spaces. An impressive grand canopy, echoing the furrowed fields of farmlands around the university, rises from 12 feet at the entrance near the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts to 34 feet high at its terminus.
Casting complex and dramatic shadows, the canopy shades a spacious plaza that welcomes viewers into a glass-fronted interior featuring five galleries with movable walls, a lecture hall, an indoor-outdoor art studio for visiting artists and students, and the Paul LeBaron Thiebaud Collections Classroom, where students will have direct access to world-class art.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the building,” said founding director Rachel Teagle. “It reflects our history and the horizontality and light of the Central Valley.”
“It’s not a temple or an enclosed box but an open, accessible place where students can stumble upon art,” said architect Florian Idenburg, of the New York firm SO-IL.
Co-designer Karl Bakus of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson in San Francisco described the indoor-outdoor flow of the building as “an immersion into creative life where viewers can experience art and art making.”
The Manetti Shrem’s exhibition space of nearly 45,000 square feet will allow the museum’s collection of nearly 6,000 objects, including Old Master prints, gifts from faculty and MFA graduates such as internationally famous Bruce Nauman, and donations from the community acquired by Amerson as teaching tools, to be accessible to the public and students on a revolving basis.
First up in the Paul LeBaron Thiebaud Collections Classroom will be a selection of masterful etchings by James McNeill Whistler.
On view in the galleries for the opening will be 10 “Johns,” a series of humorous, scatalogical sculptures of toilets and urinals made by Robert Arneson in the early 1960s as a subversive riff on Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 “Fountain,” a store-bought urinal meant to be displayed as art.
Three inaugural exhibitions will also be up. “Out Our Way” includes 240 works by the first faculty, from big names including William T. Wiley, Roy DeForest and Roland Petersen to less-well-known ones such as Ruth Horsting, who was the first female sculptor hired by the UC system.
Mexico City artist Pia Camil’s participatory installation, “A Pot for a Latch,” will invite viewers to exchange a personal object for one displayed on its panels, and Chris Sollars’ video installation, “Hoof and Foot: A Field Study,” explores the relationship between students and animals at a UC campus rooted in agriculture and home to a world-renowned school of veterinary medicine.
Education is at the forefront of the museum, which is free to all, Teagle said.
“When you enter, the first thing you see is the lecture hall, the collections classroom and the studio space where you can see students making art on the weekends.”
The opening festivities, a collaboration with Sacramento’s Verge Center for the Arts designed by UC Davis alumna Lisa Rybovich Craille, will be a multimedia event. Three hundred hand-painted links of a chain will be woven through the canopy with dangling charms to resemble jewelry. The celebration, which begins with a birthday party for Thiebaud and Petersen, will feature site-specific works, performances and hands-on art experiences.
“You know how when you go to museum openings, you often get a tote bag?” asked Teagle. “Well, here you will be able to make your own.”
A new art museum
What: Grand opening of the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum at UC Davis
Where: One Shields Ave., Davis
When: 10 a.m. Sunday party, noon ribbon-cutting
Cost: Free; closest parking is at the Gateway Parking Structure across Old Davis Road from the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.
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