Julia Matthews Wilkinson Center for Prints and Drawings Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin
by Kristin Holder
Before I joined the Blanton Museum of Art staff as Print Room Specialist, I visited the museum to familiarize myself with the facilities and surrounding environment. With its location at the intersection of Congress Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the museum serves as a gateway between a vibrant city and an exhilarating and innovative university. During that visit, surrounded by the tree-filled courtyard and cool marble colonnades, I could feel its vitality and energy, and I could also sense that it was a place for scholarship and quiet reflection.
The H-E-B Study Room is found within the Julia Matthews Wilkinson Center for Prints and Drawings at the Blanton. Dr. Francesca Consagra is the senior curator of prints and drawings, and European paintings, and she oversees three full-time employees that serve the public through the research, care, and presentation of almost 16,000 works of art on paper. The department assists a wide range of people with different interests: the UT community, as well as other local universities, K-12 schools, art a cionados, curators, collectors, connoisseurs, and artists. It is one of the most visited study rooms in the country with almost 2,000 visitors per year. Anyone can make an appointment to study, discuss, and enjoy prints and drawings that are not currently on display in the museum. In the study room, visitors not only have the intimate experience of seeing unframed art up close, but they can experience pairings and juxtapositions of works not feasible in the galleries.
I have seen art speaking to people. A nursing class visited last semester where I pulled work by Feliciano Centurión, an Argentine artist who died of AIDS in 1996, and another work by Eric Avery, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch who counsels patients with the disease. The students had spent the majority of the semester in the classroom, and this visit was an opportunity for them to make a deeper, empathetic connection with individuals living with the disease, in the past and the present. For example, the works by Centurión evolved from the time that he discovered he had the disease until his death. The anger he expressed early on changed to acceptance and a sense of his coming to terms with the end of his life. Yet the art stays with us. What art gives the students then is a way to talk about the emotional and spiritual aspects of people su ering from this disease, how they cope with it, and ultimately, in Centurión’s case, how he overcame it.
Almost nine hundred people visited the H-E-B Study Room during the fall semester. Those who visited were local school children, retirees, and accomplished scholars from the US and abroad. There were classes with only five students, and even large-scale lectures with sections that brought in over two hundred students in total. In these visits, the works of Rembrandt, Lucas Cranach, Käthe Kollwitz, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Josef Albers, Ana Mendieta, and Luis Camnitzer have stood out as particularly strong examples of excellent teaching tools for their ability to signify technique, media and social relevance.
Since I started working with the Blanton’s extensive collection of prints and drawings, the continuity of these media from the Renaissance to the present- day has become increasingly clear. These practices have evolved with innovations in technology throughout history. Yet, I have started to see an inherent dialogue between works that are separated by space and time. One might even consider how the development of printmaking, valued for its indexicality and its ability to be endlessly copied, relates to today’s culture. Social media outlets like Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram are vehicles for individuals to over their own ideas to a wide audience on a seemingly unlimited scale. What the Wilkinson Center for Prints and Drawings overs— that these recent technologies do not— is an enduring material repository of culture, beauty, technical innovation, and philosophy for all of us to benefit from.
A recent interview with Francesca Consagra, Senior Curator, Prints and Drawings and European Paintings, gives further insight into the extensive holdings of the Wilkinson Center for Prints and Drawings and the curator’s vision for the future.
Kristin Holder: How does the Blanton’s print collection compare to other major US collections in size and scope?
Francesca Consagra: In Texas and the Southwest, we have the largest collection of European prints and drawings made before 1800. And the Blanton boasts one of the highest attendance gures of any university art museum, with 158,000 visitors last year. We serve the needs of both a vital research university and a fast-growing capitol city. ese audiences also in uence the way that we approach our exhibitions, acquisitions, and programming.
KH: What do you consider to be the collection’s strength? As new print acquisitions are made, what focus would you as curator like to see added?
FC: Since the 1980s, the museum has focused its collection in three major areas: European, Latin American and American. Sixty-two percent of the collection of European art on paper predates 1800. Over 700 artists represent the Latin American collection, which is eleven percent of our works on paper, the majority of these dating after 1963. The American works on paper comprise about 25 percent of the collection and it has excellent examples of prints made by artists active during the time of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), including Clare Veronica Leighton, as well as modern and contemporary artists.
The museum is presently in the process of developing collecting strategies for the future and building its acquisition funds. Because of the vibrant printmaking culture in Austin, I would like to deepen and expand our areas of collecting so that we can teach the history of prints better and help our diverse audiences understand how important and beautiful works of art on paper can be.
I do believe that our public would benefit greatly from having access to more superb prints by some of the greatest printmakers of Western Art: Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, Manet, Munch, Gauguin, Degas, Picasso, Giorgio Morandi, and Jasper Johns. Since our collection is only 50 years old, we have made enormous strides in a short period of time. But I do think that with the right resources and support we can build the collection so that it can provide even more examples of some of the greatest prints ever made in European art like Durer’s Knight Death and the Devil, Rembrandt’s Three Crosses, Picasso’s La Tauromaquia or Munch’s Madonna. I would also like to start collecting in areas not well represented in the collection. We need more works by minorities in our American collection. Our Latin American collection has many more women represented than our other collections, and I am thinking about how best to incorporate more works on paper by women into the European and American collections with the help of Veronica Roberts, our curator of modern and contemporary art. We have only a handful of works on paper by Africans and only a hundred by Asians. We are now in a world culture. Barriers are breaking down, which is partially due to such great advances in technology. And our print collection, I think, should re ect our new ways of thinking about the world.
KH: What will be the Blanton’s next major print exhibition?
FC: The exhibition, In the Company of Cats and Dogs, will open June 22, 2014 and will feature many fantastic prints from the collection and also some superb loans. I am working with a group of scholars and curators who study human-animal interactions and the role of animals in art and culture. e exhibition will focus on the psychology and moral implications of humans’ relationships with cats and dogs and how they have evolved over time in the hopes of fostering new scholarship on the subject and greater public awareness about it.