The Saginaw Art Museum - Unveiling the Restoration of a Grand Masterpiece

With a $2.5 million Capital Campaign the Artistic Jewel of the Great Lakes Bay is Transformed Into a World Class Cultural Resource

    icon Oct 09, 2014
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As both a physical structure and cultural haven for priceless works of art emblematic of both the rich diversity of our region coupled with the legacy of its heritage, the Saginaw Art Museum  is undoubtedly one of the crown jewels of our community – a harbinger for creativity, an incubator for education, and something that reaffirms both the role & importance of creativity in Saginaw’s future.

Lodged inside the historic Ring Home on North Michigan, C.L. Ring was a key negotiator in the consolidation of Saginaw City & East Saginaw resulting in the present City of Saginaw in 1890; and following his father’s death in 1896, Ring inherited the family’s home, which was a Georgian -style construction. In 1903 he commissioned New York architect Charles Adam Platt to design the stately home, along with its impressive garden, that has served as the home of The Saginaw Art Museum for decades.

Yet sadly, less than two years ago, the Museum was in jeopardy and on the borderline of financial ruin – the result of a perfect storm of circumstances.

But thanks to the foresight of committed & passionate community leaders, coupled with a move by the membership to form a Directorship and shift their role to an advisory capacity through a special election that  changed museum by-laws to create a Board of Directors that would lend fiscal stability to this community treasure, today the Saginaw Art Museum stands proudly as a polished, profound, and pivotal creative & cultural resource – truly unique in what it has to offer; and poised to usher in a remarkable new era of creative accomplishment.

With their monthly Macy’s Museum After Hours event on October 9th, the community is invited and the doors are now officially opened for the public to view the newly designed galleries, completely refurbished Ring Home and Gardens, and witness the restoration of artworks cultivated from the Museum’s permanent collection of art.

Unlocking the Treasures & Refurbishing the Dream

One of the first moves the Board of Directors made was to hire Saginaw native Stacey Gannon as their Executive Director. According to Gannon, when she came on board at the Museum two years ago, the first step involved with revitalizing and stabilizing the museum was to gain a thorough understanding of the valuable artistic resources and treasures to be found in the Museum’s permanent collection of artwork.

The overall capital campaign at the Museum slated $1.5 million for renovation of the building and conservation of the artwork contained in the Museum’s permanent collection. Gannon says it speaks to the confidence of people in the strategic plan developed that these goals were  met.  “We went in knowing we had to invest close to a million dollars in restoration of the physical plant alone,” she explains. “Just to run through a brief list, we needed new windows, improved staffing, basic tools to run a museum in today’s world such as a new phone system and software to inventory our collection along with donor and volunteer member management – simple and basic things like that.”

Gannon says they also worked with Consumers Energy and installed two new energy management control systems to protect and preserve the artwork, along with new windows and doors, which saw an immediate reduction in monthly energy costs while simultaneously protecting the museum’s most valuable asset: their permanent collection.  Additionally, patrons will witness new LED lighting in the museum spaces, new exhibition furniture, and most important – the full cleaning and restoration of the artwork contained within the permanent collection.

“As we went through the collection and restored the artwork, we had six patrons that have been affiliated with the museum for decades moved to tears over what they saw once we restored some of these priceless paintings and sculptures,” reflects Stacey.

“Our budget includes a commitment of $250,000 for conservation of the permanent collection over the next few years.  We’ve completed some substantial work with what is currently on view in the galleries.  It was exciting because we were able to actually set up a conservation workshop on site, and members got to watch the painstaking detail of cleaning and repairing some of the works and some frames during our Arty Soil luncheon. Especially with some of the paintings that appeared dark – once they were cleaned, their colors suddenly popped.”

“We also hired James Tottis, who was a former American art curator for the Detroit Institute of Arts for 24 years and was also involved with the New York City Art Museum, explains Gannon.  “He worked with our former collections manager, Ryan Kaltenbach, for an entire summer going through our permanent collection so that we had a full understanding of our assets.”

“We have close to 2000 pieces and clearly what we have is a strong collection of 18th, 19th, and 20th century American & European art, so once we established this understanding of our resources, we developed a strategy centered upon how to best utilize it.  We are already both an accredited and a collecting museum, so our core business is that permanent collection and we wanted to use the historical value of the Ring home to showcase that permanent collection,” she continues.

“Consequently, we now have 11 galleries featuring works from our permanent collection, an Artisan wing to the Museum, an educational wing, and also a space that is dedicated to local and regional artists.  We’ll have a museum store installed soon, classrooms downstairs, and to the right of the building we have our Exhibition Hall where we will showcase traveling exhibitions, juried shows, and featured exhibitions.”

According to Gannon, the oldest piece contained in the museum’s permanent collection is an Egyptian vessel estimated to be 4500 years old; and the most recent acquisition is a Calypso piece acquired from East Jordan Glassworks. Contemporary artwork is now on exhibition in the second floor graphics art gallery. Plus another new element added on the lower level of the museum is a gallery space showcasing the Ring home and family.

“Each of these 11 gallery spaces were specifically designed by Jim Tottis to accommodate the artwork that goes into them,” continues Stacey. “In a way it is organized like taking a walk around the world, so you go from British, French, and Asian influenced art to American artwork upstairs, which is like taking a geographical and historical walk through time.”

According to Tottis, “When going through the permanent collection the great surprise was to find a collection that spans the first millennium to the 18th and mid-20th century; and throughout that collection, I found a strong sculpture collection that exists here, along with a magnificent depth of John Rogers works.”

“The collection of French Barbizon painting is pretty stellar and there is a small but choice & strong collection of Hudson river romantic landscape painting of the 19th century,” he continues. “I believe that one of the Corot pieces here at the SAM to be the best in the State of Michigan. It’s a very strong work and Corot was the father of the Barbizon School.  Anyone interested in 19th Century painting should travel here to see it, which definitely makes the Saginaw Art Museum a destination point.”

“There are also some excellent Italian & Dutch paintings in the collection and an incredible Jacob Jorgenson collection, which is representative of first rate Venetian painting. In summation, while the permanent collection at the SAM is small, it is nonetheless a remarkably rich collection with many magnificent items.”

“This is a great asset for the region,” adds Tottis, “and while I don’t want to say its on the level of the Frick’s Museum in New York, nor is the Ring home of that magnitude, it’s certainly achieved the same type of intimacy that one finds in the Frick, which we’ve worked very hard to do.”

When installing the permanent collection currently on display, Tottis says the goal was to let the collection tells its unique story. “Prior to Stacey’s involvement, we discovered that the collection was not allowed to tell its story, so we found some logic that allows for an educational experience when people walk into the gallery. For example, we identified Italian and Spanish Southern Baroque works that needed to be segregated into cultures so people can see visually how these works hang together and are supported with didactic information that can be rearranged for groups.”

“The idea is to have you travel through the story of Western European art – from Baroque to Flemish to English to 19th Century. The SAM has a small Asian collection, but what you have here is exceptional. So by comparing culture we can show how they came up with similar but different ideas.”

“Outside of the New York Historical Society, the SAM has one of the largest John Rogers collections I’ve witnessed, and there was just a major exhibition of his work in New York two years ago.”  Obviously, this type of revelation and emphasis gives the SAM an appeal that stretches beyond the physical borderlines of Saginaw.

3 Special Exhibitions & The Doorway to the Future

Gannon explains the museum will keep programming fresh by rotating nine exhibitions a year through the museum, which will cycle in orders of three: three through the Artisan, Regional and local wings of the museum; three graphics exhibitions from the permanent collection; and three major world class exhibitions. 

“We have enough to draw upon from our permanent collection to keep programming fresh and we will continue to support K-12 artists with our Student Show, so there is always a reason for people to come back to the Museum and see something new,” states Gannon. “Every time people come into the museum there will be something new to see and we want members to return and stop back to enjoy the wonderful resources we have to display here at the S.A.M.”

Another new & significant addition to the Museum is Alyssa DePlonty, serving in the position of curator that was vacated by the departure of Ryan Kaltenbach. A Saginaw native, DePlonty spent a year working in the Southwest with the  AmeriCorps NCCC program and recently joined SAM in September of this year. As curator, she will be responsible for the care and maintenance of the collections, the design & set-up of exhibitions, and the development of educational programming.

When asked her opinion of the more significant pieces contained in the Museum’s permanent collection, Gannon humbly admits the experience has been an art history lesson for her. “I think the ones that stand out to me consist of our collection of Corot paintings, because he was significant for being the ‘father’ of ‘plein air’ work, which is essentially a school of outdoor painting. Associated with the Barbizon period.”

In the spring of 1829, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot came to Barbizon to paint in the forest of Fontainebleau, where he also returned in the autumn of 1830 and summer of 1831 to make drawings and oil studies. Several of his works influenced a younger generation of French artists including Claude Monet, Renoir, and Rousseau. According to Tottis, one of the Corot’s contained within the museum’s collection – The Big Tree – is one of the finest examples of his work you will find anywhere in the Midwest, if not further.

“We are planning a Plein Air festival for next summer,” relates Gannon, “and introduced it to the region this past summer for local artists. But other strengths of our collection reside in our John Rogers sculptures, which are becoming more important in the art world. “Rogers is like the Norman Rockwell of sculpture to me,” notes Gannon. “If you look at his work they are not the most pretty pieces and a rather flat clay color, but they depict a detailed story and moment in history like a Rockwell painting would and the detailed graphics he sculpted are incredible.”

MCAA Michigan Ceramics 2014 will run from October 17th through January 3rd and it one of the few artist-run exhibitions of its caliber. Organized by the Michigan Ceramic Art Association, this biennial & juried competition showcases the excellence in ceramic aft from Michigan and neighboring states.

Mid-Century Modern 20th Century Prints from 1940-80 are currently being featured in the Graphic Arts Gallery through November 1st, with the Saginaw En Plein Air exhibition continuing through January 3rd in the Artisan Wing, while upcoming exhibitions in February will include the K-12 Student Show followed by an exhibition featuring the artwork of New Yorker Magazine artists being prepared for the Fall, which the museum will have an opportunity to become the first in the country to showcase in April, May & June.

June, July & August will feature a fresh Plein Air showcase, followed by the masterworks of Ansel Adams. According to Stacey, the museum is also looking at doing something with the topics of jazz music & immigration; and are talking about possibly doing a ‘Great Lakes Bay Area Collectors’ exhibition.

“The second floor gallery has an ‘Art of War: Call to Action in Support of the Great War’ exhibit opening on Veteran’s Day,” explains Stacey, “which features WWI posters from the permanent collection, followed by an exhibition featuring turn-of-the-century photography from Paris and Europe that will open early next year.”

Additionally, Macy’s After Hours events will continue to be held at the museum once per month, along with a lecture series tying into the War exhibition. Stacey says a pivotal goal with all of the exhibitions is tied in with education.

“We want to take these nine exhibitions that we feature throughout the year and get robust with programming that reinforces it,” she explains. “But we also want to take signature things we’ve done, such as Art Across the Curriculum, which brings  in 5th grade students to encourage creative thinking.”

“It’s important for us to fill in the gaps from schools that no longer offer art programs and become a resource for K-12 schools and teachers,” she continues. “In everything we do we will have an element of education and an element of collaboration as we move into the future.”

“My goal is make sure people walk into the museum and walk out knowing something they didn’t know before; and we’ve already seen an increase in people coming for field trips.”

Additionally, memberships at the Museum have grown from a low point of 129 shortly after Gannon came on board to a point where they are now over 500-strong. “My goal is to get to 1000 members,” she states. “I see no reason we cannot achieve that goal.”

With the renovation of the artistic treasure of the Ring Home itself, coupled in tandem with the restoration of the Permanent Collection, The Saginaw Art Museum now stands proudly poised upon its rightful perch to showcase and foster artistic talent – both from the past and into the future – that is emblematic of the finest & brightest resources that our region has to offer.

It defines both what is precious & worthwhile about our past as much as it ushers in new artistic visions and portents of our future.

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