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2013 Fall Issue 4 (October 18, 2013)

Carleton's Art Collection is Sparse, But Has Potential

October 18, 2013
By Katie Gill

The mind exhales in artistic expression, breathing culture into a meditative audience. Thousands of students cross the Carleton campus each day in search of inspiration; the modest art collection may leave some feeling that their passion is neglected. 

The current collection is, by most standards, sparse. It is composed primarily of prints and photographs, with a few paintings and three-dimensional objects available to any interested student— most are not on display.

When asked what percentage of the collection lies in storage, Laurel Bradley, Director and Curator of the Perlman Teaching Museum explained that, “All of it, except a few things in the library.” The trove of artwork sits in the basement of the Weitz Center, easily accessible by appointment through Teresa Lenxen or Laurel Bradley.

As a community resource, the museum stores are underutilized.  Bradley says, “If we had more staff we would actively seek to make those connections [with local schools and groups].” About new artwork, too, she explains, “We’re not like the library, although I think we should be; we have no acquisition budget.”

Funds allocated to the museum serve to maintain the collection but little remains for expansion.   Assistant Vice President for Alumni and Parent Relations and Director of the Annual Fund, Becky Zrimsek, says of donations, “We do not actively solicit works of art.”  Despite the dependence on donation, Bradley argues that indiscriminate solicitation “would not necessarily enhance our collection.”  The Fine Arts Committee, responsible for approving accessions, must consider the object’s relevance, necessary maintenance, and acknowledge the still limited space in the new storage facility.

People interested may direct monetary gifts to the department. They also may choose to contribute an unrestricted donation to the Annual Fund, which provides the annual operating budget.

Bradley laughs as she remembers the previous storage facility: “In the past we had…let’s just say an embarrassingly inadequate setup. Things were kind of jammed together. Most of the storage racks and things we made ourselves – in a space that did not have a year round climate control.” Tight spaces and poor equipment limited the number and breadth of works that the school could accommodate.

Competing liberal arts colleges boast tens of thousands of art pieces.  Bowdoin (with approximately 20,000 art objects), Oberlin (approx. 13,500), and Williams (approx.13,000) eclipse the estimated 2,700 art objects housed in the Weitz storage facility.  Of the discrepancy, Bradley says, “We could never catch up with them but I think that the Weitz Center and the Perlman Teaching Museum are a step in the right direction.”

Should Carleton continue to move in that direction? Although it’s expensive, arguments in favor of investing in art include the cultural and historical significance of artwork, not to mention the added prestige of a developed art collection for the school’s reputation. 

The art collection is integral to the department, and the renovated Weitz Center provides physical room for improvement. Soon Kai Poh ‘14 argues that, “[the collection] is an invaluable resource for students just because we have greater access to these works.” Still, he hopes the school might expand on its stores.  As opposed to the Minneapolis Institute of Art and neighboring museums, “we have greater access to these works [in the stored collection] which might not be as easily arranged in a museum.”

Bradley hopes that within two years it will be accessible to all in a virtual database.  Addressing donations of art, Bradley says, “Now we’re in a position to say yes more freely…we do have room for expansion in addition to being able to properly care for what we already have.” What we already have is storage room of art objects, an online database in construction, and hope for the future of the collection.

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