A Renaissance in Butler's Art Collection | Butler Stories
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A Renaissance in Butler's Art Collection

Bethanie Danko

from Fall 2018

You know that Butler provides outstanding education, fields great sports teams, and has a beautiful campus. But did you know that Butler is also home to a stunning collection of fine art? 

At a President’s faculty luncheon in 2015, Professor and Librarian for Special Collections, Rare Books, and University Archives Sally Childs-Helton raised a concern to my husband, Jim Danko, regarding Butler’s collection of fine art. In spite of her efforts—and those of others who were caring for Butler-owned art in formal and informal capacities—a higher level of attention and oversight was needed to best serve the needs of Butler’s collection. 

Over the next several days, Jim and I consulted with a range of Butler community members who were familiar with Butler’s art collection. We came to the conclusion that the University had, indeed, reached a point in its history when a comprehensive art assessment and revitalization was in order, and we decided that I would lead this process. 

I came to the project with an abiding love of art, but no expertise. So, I partnered with others who actually knew what they were doing, including Childs-Helton. Purchasing Manager Shelly Baldauf, and Purchasing Assistant Patti Colip had been tracking and caring for Butler’s art for more than 20 years, so they came on board right away. Associate Provost Michelle Jarvis, Butler Arts Center Community Education Manager James Cramer, and Library Associate Carly Dannenmueller followed soon thereafter. 

Our self-guided mission was to take stock of Butler-owned art and to restore, repair, and redisplay items of particular aesthetic character, monetary value, or historical importance. Above all, we sought to provide Butler students with an even richer campus experience and to expose members of the community and the public to beautiful, interesting, and important works of art. 

Above all, we sought to provide Butler students with an even richer campus experience and to expose members of the community and the public to beautiful, interesting, and important works of art. 

With the financial support of donors Gary Butkus ’88; Jason Range; Patricia ’82 and Frank ’78 Owings; and Kimberly ’69 and Robert ’68 Myers, we established a budget and hired experts including Wickliff Appraisers, textile conservators Harold Mailand and Kathleen Kiefer, art restorer Steve Redman, researcher and writer Christine Carlson ’70, and exhibit designer and builder Mike Griffey. 

The committee has now completed the University’s first art appraisal in two decades, restored and moved a range of paintings, and created educational signage for artwork campuswide. The new appraisal has led to updated insurance coverage, which is provided by the MJ Student-Run Insurance Company at Butler University. In addition, we’ve established three permanent exhibits to be enjoyed by the campus community and the public at large: The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo Costume Collection, The Eiteljorg Collection of African Art, and The Indigenous Art Collection at Butler University. 

Museum-Quality Artwork Among Butler’s newly repaired paintings are two portraits by TC Steele, widely recognized as the most accomplished member of the Hoosier Group of impressionist painters. The portraits feature Catharine Merrill, the inaugural holder of the Demia Butler Chair of English Literature, and 1897 Butler graduate Bona Thompson, namesake of the Bona Thompson Memorial Center in Irvington. Mid-century portraits of Edward and Dorothy Gallahue, the benefactors of Gallahue Hall, painted by Jay Wesley Jacobs, have also been restored. After graduating from Harvard University and studying in Paris, Jacobs painted the official portrait of U.S. President Harry S. Truman, which is displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. 

Butler’s collection also received a tremendous boost from Craig ’71 and Mary Fenneman, who had previously restored a landscape by Otto Stark—another prominent member of the Hoosier Group—and who have recently loaned Butler a landscape by William Charles Anthony Frerichs, a member of the Hudson River School movement, along with paintings by Ada and Adolph Schulz. Schulz is widely recognized as the founder of the Brown County (Indiana) Art Colony. 

Other artists featured in Butler’s collection include Wayman Adams, Ruth Pratt Bobbs, Jacob Cox, Harry A. Davis, Maude Kaufman Eggemeyer, William and Constance Forsyth, Marie Goth, Richard Gruelle, Glenn Cooper Henshaw, Frederick Polley, Frederick W. Rigley, and Clifton Wheeler. The collection also features contemporary artists Conrad Cortellini, James Wille Faust, KP Singh, Alexander Sitnikov, Justin Vining, and faculty artists including Gautham Rao. 

 

New Permanent Exhibits

With such beautiful and culturally important artwork on Butler’s campus, the committee embarked upon the creation of new permanent exhibits to showcase three very special collections. The process of establishing each exhibit included research and authentication of the objects; the design and building of exhibit cases and wall displays to ensure the security and protection of each piece; and the creation of educational signage to enable viewers to engage with—and learn from—each exhibit. 

The Indigenous Art Collection Butler is home to a group of indigenous works including terracotta vessels, bowls, instruments, and decorative figures—some of which are more than 2,000 years old. These objects can also be described as Pre-Columbian, which designates the time period of the Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, as well as the cultures and arts of the people who inhabited North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean during this time. The new exhibit is located on the ground floor of Atherton Union, directly across from the Efroymson Diversity Center. 

The Eiteljorg Collection of African Art Harrison Eiteljorg, a renowned Indianapolis business leader and philanthropist, was a passionate art collector. In addition to the collection housed in his namesake institution, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, he was an avid collector of African and Oceanic art. While Newfields displays the majority of his African art holdings, Butler is proud to own and display many objects from Eiteljorg’s African collection, which he gifted to the University. 

The objects in Butler’s collection have both decorative and functional uses and represent many of the ceremonies and activities that define the historical, cultural, and traditional aspects of West African life. They include jewelry, masks, headdresses, and sculptures in a variety of materials and styles. The new exhibit spans locations including Atherton Union, Irwin Library, Clowes Memorial Hall, and the Schrott Center for the Arts. 

 

The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo Costume Collection

The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was created in 1937 and toured throughout the United States after World War II, effectively introducing classical ballet to America. Its members went on to found schools and companies throughout the United States and Europe, infusing both with the Russian classical ballet traditions that are still embraced today. Among the company’s most prominent choreographers was George Balanchine, considered one of the greatest artistic masters of the 20th century. Balanchine’s long-time collaborator, Barbara Karinska, created hundreds of Ballet Russe costumes, including many of those in Butler’s collection. Karinska, one of the most celebrated costume designers in the worlds of both ballet and Hollywood, invented the “powder puff” tutu and earned the 1948 Academy Award for Costume Design. 

Former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancer George Verdak began his professorial tenure at Butler University in 1959. After the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo closed in 1968, the company’s physical assets were owned by the Ballet Society. In the early 1970s, Verdak arranged to have these assets—including costumes—donated to Butler University. Associate Provost Michelle Jarvis was a Butler ballet student when they arrived on campus and she helped unload them. She guided the committee in choosing six costumes for the new exhibit. These costumes— now beautifully conserved—are among the world’s finest representations of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and their provenance places them at the center of the history of classical ballet. Butler’s exhibit includes a tutu worn by Maria Tallchief, who was America’s first major prima ballerina. Also featured is a tutu worn by Alexandra Danilova, widely recognized as one of the most talented ballerinas of all time. The new exhibit is located in the Schrott Center for the Arts. 

 

Looking to the Future

With the committee’s initial goals met and my tenure as its leader coming to an end, the group is looking to the next chapter of art stewardship under the expert co-leadership of Carly Dannenmueller and James Cramer of Butler Libraries and the Butler Arts Center, respectively. The committee plans to establish a digital presence for the collection, from interactive maps to new webpages. It also plans to continue to build community education initiatives and raise awareness of the collection—both on campus and beyond—so that it may be enjoyed by the greatest number of people possible now and in the years to come. 

Special thanks to Library Associate Carly Dannenmueller for her contributions to this article. If you have questions about the art collection at Butler University, please contact Carly at cdannenm@butler.edu or 317-940-6488. 

 

Cover Image: Landscape by Otto Stark (detail)