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Illuminating HSU's Permanent Collection 

‘Light of Day’ at First Street Gallery

click to enlarge “Portrait of Bill McWhorter with Boy and Dog,” 1975. - PAINTING BY MARTIN WONG
  • Painting by Martin Wong
  • “Portrait of Bill McWhorter with Boy and Dog,” 1975.
 

If you read the headline of this article and your first thought was, "I didn't even know HSU had a permanent art collection," you are not alone. The university has largely kept its works on campus, so outsiders haven't had the chance to learn that HSU not only has a collection, but it's a significant one. The collection, established in 1970, contains more than 1,000 works by artists ranging from Rembrandt to acclaimed Pop artist Mel Ramos. "Light of Day," an exhibition of selected works from the collection at the First Street Gallery in Eureka, represents the first time the university's treasures have been shown off the main campus, and it's a rare opportunity for the public to view many important pieces.

For the last 40 years, Humboldt State has been growing its permanent collection through art department acquisitions, including the President's Purchase Award, selected from the annual student exhibition. Private individuals and the artists themselves have also donated pieces. Work from the collection is typically shown around campus, including ongoing displays in the library, university office spaces and the Reese Bullen Gallery.

For the general public, the collection has not been as accessible. Michele McCall-Wallace, director of the Reese Bullen Gallery and the university's permanent collection, looks forward to changing that. "It's an adventure to take it off campus -- more exposure to the community," McCall-Wallace said. "It's just really exciting ... to bring [the work] together in one place." McCall-Wallace noted that most of the artwork on display is spread out around campus, making it difficult to see how the collection relates to itself -- how each piece functions in context of the others.

Since many of the works in "Light of Day" have won the President's Purchase Award, the exhibition also highlights the strength of the university's art department. "For people to be able to see the history of HSU, the history of art coming out of our department, I think that's an important thing too," McCall-Wallace said.

A confluence of different factors led to the "Light of Day" exhibition, which will run through Sept. 16. It fit into the gallery's schedule, and "for the first time I found a group of students who were interested in producing it here," said First Street Gallery Director Jack Bentley. "That's really important. Everything that we do here is produced by our HSU students," he said. The university founded the gallery in 1998 partly to give students firsthand experience managing, preparing and curating exhibitions.

The exhibition's three co-curators, HSU students Erin Grady, Shawn O'Connor and Natalie Schoch, selected which works to display from the vast collection. For primarily logistical reasons, Bentley gave the curators a couple of parameters. The pieces had to be from the fine arts area of the collection and had to be two-dimensional, so they would be easier to move and to display. Beyond that, Bentley encouraged the students to select works that they responded to intuitively.

Despite occasional debates about the merits of individual pieces, the curators all agreed on the exhibition's overall direction. "We wanted to showcase artwork that was under-shown around campus for one reason or another," said Schoch. "We chose a lot of artworks that were underexposed," O'Connor added. As a result, the exhibition features many works that, for reasons ranging from content to controversy, have rarely been displayed on campus. But the curators were also careful to address a broader purpose as well. "This show is not all about shock -- it's more about just making people more aware about the permanent collection," Grady said. One of the toughest parts of picking the art, the curators agreed, was creating a cohesive exhibit that still provided a broad sampling of the collection's range and depth.

Beyond raising public awareness of the collection, the curators hope the exhibit will have an impact on campus. "I hope that more offices or buildings will want some of the artwork from the collection, and we can get it out more around campus," Grady said. Schoch and O'Connor agreed. "I hate to see a piece just stay in a storage facility and never see the light of day," O'Connor said, wryly.

Bentley is also excited about the secondary impacts exhibit could have."This is a show that's meant to be pedagogical in nature and to really support the acquisition program of the permanent collection -- but it also highlights the fact that [First Street Gallery] is a learning laboratory. We're not a sales gallery. ... Our primary goal is to educate and provide a resource for the community," Bentley said. In coming years, McCall-Wallace and Bentley hope to bring different elements from the HSU permanent collection to First Street. "We are already talking about doing a selection of three-dimensional pieces," said Bentley. "We hope that it will continue as a series."

"Light of Day" includes work by Martin Wong, Mel Ramos, Tim Rollins, Leslie Kenneth Price and many others. A reception will be held Saturday, Sept. 1, in conjunction with Arts Alive. The First Street Gallery, at 442 First St. in Eureka, is open Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

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