MDN: University of Memphis Art Museum ‘May Surprise You’ With New Exhibit
In 1990, the Art Museum of the University of Memphis didn’t even carry that name – it was a contemporary gallery and the new director, Leslie Luebbers, inherited collections that could gently be described as scattered.
It wasn’t uncommon for a professor in one university department or another to discover some historic item stashed away in a closet and to just drop it off at the gallery. This happened over and over.
Thus as the Art Museum of the University of Memphis is about to celebrate its 35th anniversary with the opening of an exhibition featuring “hidden gems” on Friday, Oct. 14, the exhibit’s name is appropriate: “This May Surprise You.”
The exhibit debuts with a reception from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and will run through Dec. 17. The AMUM is located on campus, in the Communication and Fine Arts Building, and is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and admission is free.
Among the items to be included in this exhibition: a 200-year-old Japanese book made of rice paper, which will be displayed with one of two full-Japanese armor suits AMUM has in its possession; newly acquired works by Josef Albers, an abstract artist who was instrumental in bringing the tenets of European modernism to America; a royal chair with human figures made of brass; a 16th-century illustrated book about Aztec culture; a fifth-sixth century Egyptian textile with dancers; indigo wrap for a wealthy African woman; and a newly revealed Egyptian snake mummy.
Luebbers said they didn’t realize they had an Egyptian snake mummy until taking an X-ray.
“Mostly, they made mummies out of pets or edibles, like ducks,” she said. “It’s not big, not a python.”
When AMUM opened on Oct. 18, 1981, the Department of Art was ready to deposit Egyptian antiquities purchased from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, an assortment of prints and objects acquired for teaching purposes, and a loaned collection of African art.
Designed for temporary contemporary art exhibits, not collections, the young gallery struggled to accommodate both, and except for permanent displays of Egyptian and African art, the objects in its care were seldom shown.
From 1990 to 2008, she says the museum essentially stopped receiving collections. The AMUM resumed strategic acquisitions in 2009 with Martha and Robert Fogelman’s African collection gift – “way too good to turn down,” Luebbers said – followed by Patricia Cloar Milsted’s 2012 donation of Carroll Cloar’s drawings and the 2013 gift of the William S. Huff collection of Samuel Hester Crone’s drawings.
Luebbers had been in contact with Huff since 1993, helping him to also find other museums to place key pieces from the collection. She identifies the Egyptian collection, the African collection and “works on paper” as AMUM’s three areas of primary focus.
Presently, AMUM has about 6,000 to 7,000 square feet of display space, but only a minimal amount of room left over for office, storage and preparation functions. That should change in a few years, however, when a new music performance building is complete and space now used by the marching band and others becomes available to AMUM.
“Early on, we planned on being a museum,” Luebbers said, recalling her start back in 1990, “even though from the outside much didn’t change. Now, on our 35th anniversary, we’re a much different institution. We want to make clear to ourselves, our staff, the university, the Memphis community and other museums, that we are a museum and we have collections.