Thursday, April 16, 2009

Small Museum Profile: Kresge Art Museum @Michigan State

If we play a word association game with “Michigan State”, you might first think of college basketball, given the Spartans' exciting success at the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this year. But equally exciting is all the activity going on at the Kresge Art Museum housed at Michigan State University (home page here). The museum was founded in the late 1950s and contains a large and diverse collection of 7000 items (including photography) appropriate to a teaching museum.

Anchored by a large gift from MSU alumnus and well known contemporary collector Eli Broad and his wife, the university will be breaking ground on a new Zaha Hadid designed building (The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum) in 2010 with 18,000 square feet of new gallery space, scheduled to open in 2012. On a going forward basis, post-1945 art will be the focus of collection growth and new acquisitions, so the visibility of the photography collection will certainly increase in the future. Images of the new museum and other related information can be found here.

Currently, the Kresge Museum holds approximately 1070 photographs, with 20th and 21st century imagery making up more than 90% of the holdings, so it’s a small but actively growing photography collection. The entire collection is up on the website and can be easily searched (here). Highlights include a group of Warhol photographs (similar to the ones recently exhibited at the Neuberger Museum, here), stock photographs by Ewing Galloway, many important portfolios, and significant direct donations by the artists/estates of Ruth Bernhard, Yousuf Karsh and Ralston Crawford. Collectors can access the collection in person by making an appointment in the print viewing space with the Registrar, Rachael Vargas.

Portions of the permanent collection of photography are always on view at the Kresge, and the exhibitions calendar has had a solid share of photography, given the museum’s broad mandate. Recent photography exhibitions have included:
  • Yousuf Karsh, Photographs, 2007
  • Ewing Galloway, Photographs, 1920-1950, 2007
  • Marion Post Wolcott, Photographs, 2007
  • Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer, 2005 (a monograph was also published on this show)
Photographs were also a significant part of the Kresge’s recent 50th anniversary exhibition (installation shots of the gallery spaces at right, provided by the museum). This show included works by Essaydi, Burtynsky, Meyerowitz, Winogrand, Weston, Weegee, Levinstein, Levitt, and others. Later this fall, Dawoud Bey’s Class Pictures will be on view.

The museum does not have a full time photography curator, but Dr. Howard Bossen, Professor of Journalism, is devoting part of his time to the photography department as an adjunct curator. Bossen is now in the process of putting together a major exhibition entitled World of Steel: 160 Years of Photographs, encompassing approximately 225 works. In addition to the exhibition, two books will be produced: an exhibition catalog with extended essays, and Voices of Steel, a compilation of oral histories, first person narratives and photographs. The project is in partnership with the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, and is slated to open in 2012 at the Carnegie, followed by the Kresge and two additional venues.
For a small program, the acquisitions activity at the Kresge has been fast paced in recent times, with approximately 200 pictures entering the collection in the past few years, via both a dedicated acquisitions budget for photography and by donations from patrons and artists. On a going forward basis, the short term collections focus is on broad-based hole filling: ensuring the collection has at least one representative work from historically significant photographers, with diminishing focus on the 19th century. Given the increased budget coming from the Broad gifts (for acquisitions and operating costs as well, not just the new building), this is a collection that will clearly continue to grow in the coming years, particularly in its contemporary holdings.
This museum is an example of an art institution on the rise (even in tough times), with a new building and new acquisitions just over the horizon. It's one for photography collectors to keep an eye on.

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