When Ann Murray, art history professor and director of Beard and Weil Galleries, arrived on campus in the fall of 1974 she immediately took on one of her biggest challenges— organizing, documenting and protecting Wheaton’s art collection.
That scattered collection of items, in Murray’s hands, has become the college’s very cohesive Permanent Collection. As she retires in May, the collection—along with the many gallery exhibitions she curated—stands as a testament to her many accomplishments at Wheaton.
Wheaton’s eclectic collection consists of paintings, drawings and prints, as well as sculptures, antiquities, textiles, artists’ books, Native American baskets and decorative arts. Original prints by Dali, Goya, Miró, Picasso, Rembrandt and Whistler are among the items.
And it is an accessible collection. As Murray points out: There are not many places where a student can hold (in a gloved hand) an original etching by Rembrandt.
Hunting for treasure
Surprisingly, the effort to gather together all of the works comprising the Permanent Collection (which was not even in Murray’s job description) began like a game of hide-and-seek, because many of them were all over campus. Shortly after she arrived at Wheaton, armed with a list and accompanied by her part-time gallery assistant, she would go on what she calls a “treasure hunt.”
“We would go on expeditions around campus looking for paintings, because we had found lists of works that were supposed to be here. But we didn’t know where they were,” she says. “Administrative offices sometimes had paintings, and when people would leave, they would just put the painting that had been hanging on the wall in a closet. And then the next person who came might or might not think to bring it back. It might just stay in the closet for a long time.”
Some works were found in a former barn behind a campus house located across the street from Murray’s Watson Fine Arts office. Some were found stored in a crawl space under a heating duct in Watson, several more in the attic of the library, and elsewhere. Not unsurprisingly, many of the found works were not in good condition. So Murray has spent a great deal of time having pieces restored, with the support of grants and gifts.
The college has received several grants from what is now the Massachusetts Cultural Council on the Arts, as well as from The Bay and Paul Foundations in New York. The Wheaton College Friends of Art has provided generous funding for conservation over the past several years and continues to do so. Most recently the college received a $5,000 grant for conservation from the Cricket Foundation, which was matched by the Friends of Art.
The majority of paintings in the collection have undergone conservation, but the work is ongoing, notes Murray. Much of that has been done by painting conservator Susan Werner O’Day ’77, one of Murray’s early students.
For many years, students worked with Murray on the collection, gathering data and cataloging information. Gradually, they compiled a database that eliminated the need for accession cards.
College Archivist Zephorene Stickney praises Murray for her dedicated efforts: “Ann is to be applauded not only for bringing together the Permanent Collection, but also for realizing that there was a collection scattered about the campus, and convincing those of us who had artworks to have them accessioned as part of the collection and moved to Watson.”
Now Leah Niederstadt, assistant professor of museum studies, is in charge of the collection. Before she began in 2008, there was no designated collections curator. Murray did the job, along with all of her other responsibilities.
Niederstadt recently worked with Kayla Malouin ’10, who curated Collection/ Reflection: A History of Wheaton’s Permanent Collection. The exhibition, on display in March and April in Beard Gallery, highlighted the vital role that individuals and families have played in building the collection through their donations of art.
In addition to the work on the collection, Murray by the end of this year will have curated 143 shows in the galleries (currently up to nine per year), which is what she was originally hired to do.
Stickney points out that the professor also gave the collection an academic focus by using it to teach students.
Murray has taught 19th- and 20th-century art history courses, senior seminars, and lectured in the team-taught art history survey. The last senior seminar she taught produced an exhibition called The Realist Impulse: Painting and Sculpture from the Wheaton College Collection, 1830–1940. Eleven students researched and wrote essays on 58 works of art that are now documented in a 132-page catalog. Another exhibition and catalog—An American Composer Looks at Egypt: Ruth Lynda Deyo and the Diadem of Stars (1999)—led to research that Murray plans to continue after she retires.
Looking back, she says, one of the most rewarding experiences has been working on the catalogs with students and watching them gain valuable research skills as they dug for firsthand knowledge.
“The joy of finding things out that you didn’t know before and finding out that, in fact, it was really quite important, and helping students to make those discoveries, has been great,” she says. “I’ve enjoyed it all.”