DeVos shows permanent collection

Guy Schuil

Art, by its very essence, carries with it the diverse nature of all those that view it. Each piece has its own story that can be better understood when the time, place and creator are taken into consideration. The DeVos Art Museum has been collecting these stories the past forty years and will display part of its 1,500 object range until Sunday, July 12.

In 1975, NMU opened its first gallery space in Lee Hall and was considered a “Kunsthalle,” which is German for a facility that mounts art exhibitions. This “marked the transition of just showing student and faculty work on campus, to bringing in artwork from elsewhere to display,” shared Melissa Matuscak, the director and curator of the DeVos. In the mid 1980s, sizeable donations began to build a core collection and gave the museum six main foci; 20th Century Illustration, 20th Century Design, Japanese, Native American and Inuit Art and Artifacts and Regional Modern and Contemporary. 

“Before,” Matuscak illustrates, “it was just a Kunsthalle, but when you become a museum, that means you have a collection that you take care of.”

Once the areas of focus had been firmly established, a sudden need to regulate incoming art came to the forefront. Out of welcomed necessity, the museum adopted a set of managerial procedures and guidelines to create consistency for future acquisitions.

“This document really outlines everything—all of the different areas of focus we have, which is what this gallery, 40 Years Collecting, represents,” Matuscak said. However, she does not make these decisions alone, but with the assistance of an advisory committee comprised of both faculty and community members. The rigorous process promises consistency throughout the six foci; however, the four galleries currently on display went through a different process all together.

Of the 1,500 objects held in the collection, the four galleries on display were hand-picked by Matuscak with attention to areas that people have yet to see.

Gallery One takes a look at the lithography of Hungarian artist Laszlo Dus. Of the 30 Dus pieces held in the collection, Matuscak chose the 12 on display due to his harmony in color palatte and the ease with which they communicate with one another. “These sort of tell a story to me. They’re not part of a series, but they spoke to me in a way where I felt that they were telling me a story,” Matuscak said. The stories told by Dus’ work invite us to consider how the contiguous artworks might share with us a story of their own.

Gallery Two takes us through local and regional art acquired within the past three years. The geographical preference of this gallery provides a spirit of accessibility that is mirrored by the observations of Japanese middle class portrayed by Utagawa Hiroshige prints and the various cultural artifacts found in Gallery Three. In the last gallery, we become immersed in Native American culture. “We have a big focus on the woodland tribes, [those from the] northeast, through the Great Lakes and into Canada,” Matuscak said.A unique addition to the gallery includes video and audio of Anishinaabe elders that offer stories of traditions passed as well as various techniques and vernacular that accompany the processes of creating boxes made with birch bark, sweet grass and porcupine quills.

This eclectic exhibit has served as a trial of sorts. The museum just hired a Curator of Collections and Outreach who will be responsible for everything pertaining to the permanent collection. The areas of intrigue and community impact relates to their full-time role of curating the collection in a perpetual exhibit and synchronizing those exhibits with pertinent artist visits and community involvement.

Assistant professor Emily Lanctot said, “an ongoing showcase of the permanent collection would be beneficial to both the university and the community.” She cites the synchronization of this year’s Diversity Common Reader book, “Braiding Sweetgrass,” with the artwork found in the Native American art, as a key example of what’s to come. As far as the university goes, Lanctot says “the exhibit would bridge the gap between what students are studying in their classrooms, regardless of discipline, and the tangible artifacts found in the collection; the advantages          are endless.”