Oglethorpe University Museum of Art is celebrating a quarter-century of culture with an exhibit of works from its permanent collection, some of which have not been displayed in years — or ever before.
“OUMA in Retrospect: Celebrating 25 Years,” which opened July 7 and runs through Sept. 16 at the Brookhaven university, showcases nearly 100 pieces, including paintings, works on paper and a sampling of the Japanese porcelain collection.
Among the rarely displayed pieces is the colorful mixed-media painting “The Factory 8am” by the celebrated Decatur folk artist Mattie Lou O’Kelley, whose work is also in the collections of the High Museum and New York City’s American Folk Art Museum.
Located in the third floor of the university’s Lowry Hall at 4484 Peachtree Road, OUMA houses approximately 700 works spanning seven centuries, from the 1300s to the 1900s. It has more than tripled in size over the last five years, thanks to a significant increase in donations and outreach by OUMA director Elizabeth H. Peterson, who came to the museum in 2012 and curator John Daniel Tilford, who joined OUMA in 2013.
“It’s rare for a school our size … to have such a large collection of art,” Tilford said of the 1,250-student university.
In addition to a cadre of dedicated collector-donors, the upswing in donations can be attributed to demographics. A generation of baby boomers are downsizing their homes and holdings, and, in many cases, their children don’t want or have space for furniture and artwork, said Tilford.
The greatest challenge in assembling the exhibit, which was a year-and-a-half in the planning, was choosing from among so many works of art, he said. His goal was to showcase various strengths of the collection: 19th-century French art, works from the Far East, pieces from the museum’s unique Japanese porcelain collection — more than 160 pieces from the 17th to early 20th century, and a sizable holding of 19th- and 20th-century American art. More recently, OUMA has broadened its focus to build the collection with works by African-American artists and women artists, who are also represented in the show.
Two pieces bookend the exhibit. One is a 14th-century wood and lacquer sculpture of the Amitabha Buddha, a religious figure, acquired by OUMA founder Lloyd Nick. The other is a small bronze dating to around 1900, “La Pensee” by Henri Capeau, that is a study for a full-size sculpture for a tomb in France. The two pieces represent the growth of the collection from its beginning in 1984 — when Oglethorpe had an art gallery but not a museum.
With such a large collection, the museum has set an ongoing goal to bring more works out of storage into the light of day for accessibility and visibility by students, campus visitors and the greater community as well as for loan to other museums and universities and as exhibits on tour.
“OUMA’s main reason for being is to offer academic support,” said Peterson, the museum’s director. Like most of OUMA’s exhibits, “OUMA in Retrospect” ties into school curricula. In the case of the anniversary show, 14 different courses are involved, including multimedia journalism, introduction to art studies and history. Past exhibits have included curriculum ties to biology, science, literature and more.
Peterson was instrumental in developing museum studies courses, independent study and gallery assistant internships for students. In the past five years, OUMA has introduced student-led lectures, docent tours, performances and volunteer opportunities, according to OUMA’s website. Oglethorpe also offers non-credit community courses for students and the public.
What began as a modest art gallery in 1984 was renovated in 1992 and opened in 1993 as Oglethorpe University Museum of Art with 7,000 feet of gallery space occupying the entire third floor of Lowry Hall, which also houses the university’s library.
OUMA mounts two major shows annually, in the spring and fall, and several smaller shows during the year. The gallery space is divided into three areas. In January 2018, the largest Skylight Gallery was dedicated to exhibits from OUMA’s permanent collection, which, in keeping with the goal to expand the collection’s visibility, now rotate each semester.
The Center Gallery, and the Shelley and Donald Rubin Gallery are used for smaller shows, both organized by OUMA, and national and international touring exhibits. The museum works frequently with the High Museum, and has worked with other museums and universities, including Yale, the University of British Columbia and the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah.
OUMA accepts shows of outside groups such as Georgia Watercolor Society and Southeastern Pastel Society. OUMA does not solicit work from any group, but requests come in frequently, and the galleries are booked for three years.
The OUMA Research Center opened in the fall of 2017. Once a storage room cluttered with paint and old catalogs, the research center is now a pristine room furnished with chairs and a work table. A sizable stack of flat files holds the majority of the OUMA collection’s hundreds of works on paper, allowing for hands-on — in this case, white-glove — study and research by students, faculty and even the public. There is an assistant available to any student or visitor using the center. A comprehensive online database of the collection — illustrative and searchable — is under development.
OUMA in Retrospect: Celebrating 25 Years
Through Sept. 16
Oglethorpe University Museum of Art
Third floor of Lowry Hall, 4484 Peachtree Road, Brookhaven
Tuesdays and Thursdays through Sundays, noon-5 p.m.; Wednesdays noon-8 p.m.
Admission $5; children under 12 and members free.