Friday, June 02, 2006


Ivy-League Art--Part I

It's all about access. University museums and libraries may not have the attendance, collections or high profiles of major independent art institutions, but they often do a better job of giving their audiences hands-on, instructive contact with their holdings.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my recent graduation expedition to Cornell University included some nimble exhibition-hopping: First, I caught the closing days of Vanished Worlds, Enduring People---Olin Library's coming-out party for its recent acquisition of Native American rare books and manuscripts that once had been part of the collection of the Museum of the American Indian, before it was acquired by the Smithsonian.

Owned by the Huntington Free Library in the Bronx and appraised at $8.3 million, the collection was bought by Cornell in 2004 for a mere $2.5 million, after the Huntington's 15-year, devastatingly expensive legal battle to prevent the material from going to the National Museum of the American Indian's new facility in Washington.

The museum had argued, unsuccessfully, that the rare books and manuscripts at the Huntington were inseparable from the artifacts collection. (There was a good scholarly, if not legal, argument for this; the collections do complement each other.) After squandering its assets on its Pyrrhic legal victory, the Huntington, needing cash, sought to find the best custodian within New York State for the collection. Cornell, which already had a collection of related material, prevailed.

The small show that just closed in Ithaca surveyed the collection's broad scope---everything from a 1765 Treaty of Peace with the Delaware Nation to an advertisement for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show to books in Native American languages. The library would do well to plan a follow-up show, focusing on the most visually alluring material---George Catlin's album of images drawn from his Indian Gallery; Karl Bodmer's hand-colored aquatint engravings of Plains Indians; Charles Bird King's portraits for the three-volume "History of the Indian Tribes of North America"; Edward S. Curtis' photographs documenting Native American cultures of the west and northwest.

Tomorrow, Part II: Rembrandt at Cornell's Johnson Museum.

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