The exhibition created for President Le Roy's inauguration tells the history of collecting at Calvin.
In two front rooms of the Center Art Gallery, the large, vivid painting “Kite Flyers” shares wall space with an Alutiik-inspired ceremonial mask, a ceramic tea set for two, a screen print of an elk breathing hot pink clouds, infant-sized Chinese cat motif slippers, etchings by Rembrandt and Whistler, prints by Calder and Dali and numerous other works of art in many media.
The medley in the gallery, 54 pieces in all, is a sampling from Calvin’s permanent collection, and it represents the contributions to that collection—over nearly a century—of artists, collectors and curators who are alumni, faculty and friends of the college.
The exhibition is titled 90 Years of Collecting: Looking Backward and Looking Forward. Running Sept. 4–Oct. 20, the show was conceived as one of the many events honoring the inauguration of Calvin’s new president: Michael K. Le Roy. Tasked with pulling together the exhibition, Calvin director of exhibitions Joel Zwart found the new president knowledgeable about art and eager to create a show that celebrated the college.
“I was so impressed with Joel’s work on the permanent collection and its presentation,” said Le Roy. “It is so well-balanced in every way: pieces by some of the world’s best artists, some which honor Calvin’s religious and ethnic history, and more recently new contributions that capture the best of former and current Calvin faculty. The collection is a true treasure, and it is right to put it on display.”
Calvin’s permanent collection was officially launched in 1922 when William J. Monsma painted a copy of the 1858 “Portrait of John Calvin” painted by French artist Ary Scheffer (1795-1858) and gave the painting to President J. J. Hiemenga for the college. The college’s second acquisition was the afore-mentioned “Kite Flyers,” a 1926 work by Dutch-American painter Mathias Alten and a gift of the Class of 1926: “It’s truly remarkable that it’s a class gift because it’s probably one of the best paintings we have in our collection,” Zwart said. “It’s a great example of American impressionism.”
From the 1920s through the 1960s, gifts of art came to Calvin on a now-and-then basis. “It’s not until we move over to the Knollcrest campus that things start to get a little more professionalized,” Zwart said. The 1970s saw a surge in acquisitions, and when Calvin built the Spoelhof Center in 1974, the original Center Art Gallery was built in its basement.
The first curators of the permanent collection were also members of Calvin’s art faculty: Chris Stoffel Overvoorde from 1974 through 1979; James Kuiper from 1979 through 1980; Rod Pederson from 1981 through 1982; Virginia Bullock from 1982 through 1983, and Charles Young from 1985 through 1987.
“Nobody knew what was where,” Overvoorde remembered his tenure as curator. “There was stuff in hallways, there was stuff in classrooms, there was stuff in garbage cans, there was stuff in the steam room.” One painting that Overvoorde was advised to throw out turned out to be an Alten titled “Winter Scene.” Another painting, literally pulled from a garbage can by a faculty member, was Armand Merizon’s “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God.” Both paintings are featured in the exhibition.
Gradually, the curators built its quality and started keeping better records of the collection, aided, for 24 years, by art department assistant Betty Sanderson The first full-time director of exhibitions was hired in 1987. Zwart came to the job in 2003.
Faculty, students and other artists
Beginning in the 1970s, the curators began acquiring the work of Calvin faculty, a trend that is reflected in the 90 Years of Collecting. The show includes “From Weeping to Fruit Bearing,” an intaglio by Overvoorde, “Sacred Koi,” an acrylic by art department founder Edgar Boeve, “Bicycle Jaunt,” a transfer drawing by emeritus art professor Robin Jensen, “Later Summer in Glen Arbor, Michigan,” an oil painting on birch by art professor Frank Speyers and “Oak Harbor City Beach,” a stoneware and wood piece by art professor emeritus Carl Huisman.
The ’70s was also when alumni who lived in other countries began donating art they collected from other cultures to Calvin. One example of this phenomenon was Garritt Roelofs ’21, who was stationed in Japan through the U.S. Department of Defense following the Second World War. Roelofs purchased and received as gifts more than 100 Japanese works on paper, which he in turn gave to Calvin.
His largesse is represented in the exhibition by the woodcut “Courtesan Dreaming of an Elopement,” created in 1770 by Isoda Koryusai. In the work a girl has a thought balloon over her head, which contains a young man carrying her off on his shoulders. The piece is a Zwart favorite: “Isn’t it evocative of today’s cartoons?” he said.
The work of alumni artists, particularly graduates of Calvin’s bachelor of arts (BA) and bachelor of fine arts (BFA) programs, is also well represented in the show: the tea set by ceramist Bob Bosscher, the pink-breathing elk (titled “Elk Prayer”) by Eugene Dening and the graphite and wash-on-ragboard piece titled “Ethan” by Taylor Greenfield, all 2007 BFA grads.
The collection also gained works from artists-in-residence, such as the Alutiik Mask, titled Run, Salmon, Run, a gift from Russian-Alutiik carver Perry Eaton, who visited Calvin in 2010.
Two collections: two directions
In recent years the college has received major gifts from collectors that gave a new dimension to the permanent collection, and 90 Years of Collecting also spotlights their generosity, Zwart said.
In 2007 the Center Art Gallery exhibition “Between Nature and Nationality” was built around the 25 Hague School-era paintings owned by Dr. Cornelis (“Kees”) ’55 and Marjorie Van Nuis. Following the show, Van Nuis donated his entire collection of 16 Dutch works to Calvin. Village Street, an 1870 oil on canvas by Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch from The Van Nuis collection is featured in 90 Years of Collecting.
In 2008, the gallery hosted The Father and His Two Sons, an exhibition of 37 paintings, linoleum cuts, ceramics, silk screens, ink drawings and other pieces based on the theme of the Prodigal Son and owned by Dr. Larry and Mary Gerbens. The couple also donated their collection to Calvin, and Prodigal Son, a 1998 watercolor by Robert Barnum, represents their gift in the inaugural exhibition.
These two major gifts of art not only shaped the permanent collection, Zwart said. They shaped where it would live and how it would function: “Kees really caught the vision about how people could learn from his collection and that it could be a new facility,” Zwart said. “Larry also saw the need for us to share it in a new gallery, but also through loan—through traveling it.”
In 2010, when the Fine Arts Center was transformed into the Covenant Fine Arts Center, the new Center Art Gallery was built on its ground floor. In 2010, Zwart and Gerbens formed Art Partners, a giving circle that allows donors to support the gallery.
Zwart is pleased that 90 Years of Collecting gives visitors a glimpse at the breadth and depth of Calvin’s 1,500-piece collection. He’s also excited that the exhibition is a part of the presidential inauguration.
Le Roy agrees: “In the process of discerning my fit for Calvin College, I was immediately drawn to Calvin’s mission of engaging all of God’s creation, particularly its intentional and exceptional inclusion of creativity and art in that engagement. It’s so fitting that this exhibition be part of this fall’s celebration and this week’s events,” he said.
The exhibition 90 Years of Collecting: Looking Backward and Forward runs through Saturday, Oct. 20 (a portion of the exhibition will be on in the Center Art Gallery’s permanent collection gallery through May, 2013). There will be a reception at the gallery at 7 p.m., Thurs., Oct. 18.