If you've never been to the Art Museum of the University of Memphis (AMUM), now is the time to go. The gallery is celebrating its 35th anniversary this fall, a noteworthy occasion for which AMUM has mounted an eclectic exhibition of rarely seen and newly acquired work.
From intense, modernist paintings to colorful African textiles and intricate, 16th-century pen-and-ink drawings of Aztec life, the show is appropriately titled "This May Surprise You." It runs through December 17th.
What draws you into the gallery are the vibrant works of Josef Albers, a Bauhaus painter from Germany who later became a Yale professor. Introducing elements of modernism to a new generation of artists, his series, Homage to a Square, are a concentrated study in color and light.
His paintings were given to AMUM by William S. Huff, a colleague of Albers at Yale who taught architecture. The work came to Memphis vis-à-vis Huff's great uncle, painter Samuel Hester Crone, whose drawings you can see as well. Crone was a Memphian who studied in Europe in the late 1800s, eventually becoming a noted artist. While Huff grew up with Crone's paintings, he knew little about his life. So he has worked to document the places Crone lived and painted.
AMUM's holdings reflect Memphis and the interests of some of its more adventurous residents, but the museum's original purpose was to showcase contemporary art.
"This show represents transition, from the high focus on contemporary work to being more versatile. When we opened in October 1981, we were the only one to display this kind of work," says AMUM's director Leslie Luebbers.
Now that contemporary galleries are more prevalent locally, it seemed appropriate to refocus the museum's mission.
In the early years, AMUM was a repository for collections like the Native American, South American, and African textiles given by cotton magnate and avid hunter Berry Boswell Brooks. Then, a monetary gift enabled the university to purchase an Egyptian collection of antiquities being decommissioned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in the early 1980s.
"It was a small group [of artifacts], but it was primo and these items hadn't been shown at all," Luebbers says.
Now on permanent display, the collection continues to spur academic research of Egyptian art and archaeology.
AMUM's small space made storing acquisitions problematic, so it stopped receiving material for a number of years.
That changed in 2008, when a diverse, 180-piece collection of Sub-Saharan African art textiles and cultural artifacts was donated by Martha and Robert Fogelman. A second gift in 2012 came from Patricia Cloar Milsted of Carroll Cloar's lithographs, and then there was Huff's collection in 2013. A sampling of these works can be seen in the show.
It was moving their entire holdings for repair work last summer that helped to reacquaint Luebbers with the breadth of materials the museum had amassed over its 35-year history.
It also convinced her to better share that largess with students. "I feel the need to at least introduce 18- and 19-year-olds to museums and what they do, so they can get their fingers in it."
Should AMUM enlarge its footprint, something Luebbers is hoping will happen when the university's new music center opens, she anticipates being able to do more art education with undergraduates.
She mentions one student who suggested mounting an exhibition on propaganda, using AMUM's collection. "That's the kind of thing I find delightful and valuable, that we can have a platform for contemporary relevance."