Collecting for the Cornell

A new exhibition at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum celebrates the people and stories behind the art.

Created by artist Michael Steiner, the statue Barbaric rests behind Mills Memorial Hall and was gifted to the College in 1998 by Emmett McTigue. (Photo by Scott Cook) Created by artist Michael Steiner, the statue Barbaric rests behind Mills Memorial Hall and was gifted to the College in 1998 by Emmett McTigue. (Photo by Scott Cook)

Have you ever wandered by the gargantuan statue behind Mills and wondered what’s the story? Stop for a moment to read its plaque and you’d learn that this steel piece, titled Barbaric and created by artist Michael Steiner, arrived on campus in 1998 as a gift from Emmett McTigue, a relative of several current students and Rollins alumni. Sleuth a little further and you might be surprised to discover that this is how 90 percent of art typically joins the Cornell Fine Arts Museum (CFAM) collection.

“We really rely on donors to enrich the collection,” says Jonathan F. Walz, the museum’s curator. “We have about 5,000 pieces in the collection and the majority of them came from outside benefactors.” Besides work on display at the museum and housed in an offsite storage faculty, CFAM’s collection also extends across campus to places such as the Knowles Chapel, where a Tiffany window can be found tucked away at the bottom of the bell tower. Charles S. Hayes and George C. Convy gave it to the College in 1976.

Or maybe you’ve seen the infamous Kinjiro statue in Warren. A gift from alumnus Clinton Nichols ’34 in 1946, this Japanese figure stood at the center of a contested property debate when an Okinawan historical society requested its return nearly fifty years after it was gifted. The statue was eventually returned and now a replica stands in its place.

These many gifts and the people and stories behind them haven’t gotten much attention in recent years, but that’s about to change thanks to the exhibition, Collecting for the Cornell, which opens Saturday, January 19, and runs through May 12.

“With 2013 marking the Museum’s 35th anniversary, we saw the perfect opportunity to honor the people without whom we would not exist,” says Bruce A. Beal Director Ena Heller. “This is a wonderful way to celebrate our history.”

But there is another interesting story to be told; and that’s of the role of the museum in accepting gifted art.

“When CFAM acquires a work of art, Rollins assumes all rights over it but also all responsibility,” Walz says. “That means care for a lifetime, including conserving, securing, and maintaining it, all of which have costs associated with them.” For that reason, there is a process for accepting art into CFAM’s collection. “People can’t just show up with art in the trunk of their car and hand it over.” Walz and his team have to do their due diligence on every piece, including checking it against the art loss registry and making sure it wasn’t a piece stolen by the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s.

Not that Walz is complaining; it’s all part of piecing together the story of each item, stories the museum staff will be more than happy to share during the upcoming exhibition.

A handful of benefactors will be sharing their stories, too, as part of the “Dialogues with Collectors Series.” Speakers include Barbara Alfond, who will speak on February 5 about her lifelong passion for collecting and the contemporary art collection she has purchased specifically for The Alfond Inn at Rollins.

When this exhibition concludes in May, Heller will showcase art purchased by CFAM with funds donated to the museum. Following this exhibition, she’ll highlight work that the museum has most recently acquired. “We see this as the perfect opportunity to host a year-long rediscovery of the museum and our collection,” says Heller.