University Art Gallery rediscovers its own collection in new exhibit


By John Lavanga / A&E Editor

On the back wall of the University Art Gallery rests Gino Severini’s “Nature Morte,” a 1958 color lithograph characterized by an abstract, highly angular array of colored shapes and playing-card symbols that seem as though they are on the verge of motion. Though Severini is best known for his work as a painter and his integral role in the Italian Futurist movement, the clutter and clash of parts in this piece evokes intrigue. Yet to the trained eye, it becomes apparent that the piece isn’t perfect — the colors show evidence of fading.

If a single piece could encapsulate the intent of the University Art Gallery’s newest exhibition, “Rediscover: The Collection Revealed,” it would be this fascinating — albeit faded — lithograph.

The exhibition is an astonishingly honest one, exposing attendees to the incredible breadth of the gallery’s collection as well as the issues that the gallery faces in restoring these pieces from their current conditions. Some of the most damaged pieces in the collection are displayed prominently, highlighting both their incredible beauty and the extensive conservation they need. By showing off the flaws and merits of the collection, the University Art Gallery hopes to open up a dialogue about the current state of the University’s art collection and encourage students to become a part of the process of restoration.

According to University Art Gallery curator Isabelle Chartier, the exhibit was made possible by a grant given to the University Art Gallery this summer by Heritage Preservation. The organization, which seeks to help preserve art and historic artifacts through its Conservation Assessment Program, examined the condition of the gallery, its storage facilities and the environmental conditions in which the collection was stored. Over the course of two days, Chartier worked with paper conservator and conservation assessor Wendy Bennett to examine the collection and problems therein.

The results were illuminating.

In a lecture open to members of the University, Bennett highlighted some of the problems that she saw during her brief overview of the gallery. Among the issues she saw were framed pieces with cracked glass, prints that lacked glazing, rippling on canvases and prints, fading of colors in some prints and paintings placed in ill-fitting frames.

Additionally, the environmental conditions that the pieces were stored in was an issue. The Frick Fine Arts Building, built in the mid-1960s, is difficult to keep at a stable humidity level. It became clear that the collection needed serious conservation to restore the pieces and prevent degradation of the collection going forward.

Rather than keep the results of the assessment quiet and attempt to ameliorate the situation on their own, however, both Bennett and the University Art Gallery saw an opportunity to engage the rest of the University in the conservation efforts.

This is made clear by the prominent display of Emil Foerster’s “Portrait of the Foerster Family,” an 1856 piece by a Pittsburgh-based artist that once hung in the Cathedral of Learning as an example of Pittsburgh’s affinity for the fine arts. Now, the piece shows signs of wear, including small tears in the canvas and a yellowing of the painting. The painting will be at the center of the gallery’s conservation efforts, which may include using new techniques, such as crowd-sourcing, to fund the restoration.

Exposing the problems in the gallery to the public may be the best way for the gallery to help its efforts. As Chartier puts it, the University Art Gallery decided that it “should show a fragment of what we have in the permanent collection and raise some issues that were brought into light with the conservation assessment.” In doing so, the gallery hopes to create an understanding of the impressive art already in Pitt’s possession, and also inspire students to assist in the conservation effort.

Though the exhibition is but a small sampling of the roughly 3,000 objects in the University’s collection, the pieces on display speak to the depth of the collection and its captivating nature. Pieces vary greatly, including Japanese and Italian abstract paintings, oil paintings that date back to the height of Pittsburgh’s industrial era, and 16th-century Italian prints. The diversity of the exhibition is incredible, and it immediately raises questions about the full holdings of Pitt’s art collection, some of which haven’t seen the light of a gallery in decades — if ever.

Such questions are what the University Art Gallery is hoping for, as the assessment spurred the gallery toward becoming a space for teaching and experiential learning. As Yesenia Perez, a senior art history major at Pitt who volunteers at the University Art Gallery, said, the exhibit is about “encouraging student interaction with the gallery.” Many of these pieces are still shrouded in mystery, carrying questions about their origins, their arrivals at Pitt and the stories they carry with them.

“We want people to get inspired to follow the [art] and be like ‘I want to research that,’” Perez said.            

As the gallery focuses on making conservation and restoration efforts, it will also attempt to use the collection as a place to train a new generation of conservators. Chartier says that the gallery’s arts lab will serve as a teaching space for students looking to gain more experiential learning, and she hopes that this change in approach will foster a new relationship between the gallery and Pitt students.

Still, the path to restoring these pieces will not be easy. Smaller galleries such as the University Art Gallery generally don’t have access to the same conservation resources as those of a large museum, and this, along with the difficulty of gaining funding, makes restoration an ongoing challenge that will take more than an exhibition and student interest to solve.

As Bennett said it in her lecture, “There’s not enough people and certainly not enough money — [that’s] conservation in a nutshell.”