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Wednesday, October 21, 1998
Houston, Texas
Volume 64, Issue 42

About the Cougar

By Michelle Norton
Campus Editor

"What is art? Are we art? Or is art, art?" Laugh all you want, but these profound philosophical questions were posed by an important art critic of the late '80s and early '90s.

Actually, they were posed by Lisa Turtle on an episode of Saved by the Bell. She was trying to snag a "smart" guy at the time.

But source aside, it is an interesting question. What is art? Do we know? Will we ever know?

When it comes to defining a concept, tradition tells us the only definite way to truly understand something is through first-hand observation. And what better way to observe art first-hand than at the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Gallery right here at UH in the Fine Arts Building.

The woman behind the gallery

Wanting to establish a teaching collection for the art department of the University in the 1970s, Sarah Campbell Blaffer was heavily influenced by her belief that art, "which is what it creates within you," can have an enormous impact on the individual, especially the impressionable young student.

Elizabeth Catlett's Homage to My Black Sisters is one of the works that will on display at the Blaffer Gallery beginning Friday.

Photo Courtesy of Blaffer Gallery

She believed that paintings and sculpture of high quality had a vital function on a large campus, significantly impacting a large number of students.

The Board of Regents named the new gallery in the Fine Arts Building after her, and she dedicated her gallery May 13, 1973.

During the two-year period between the dedication and her death, Blaffer and her daughter Cecil Amelia Blaffer Hudson donated 15 paintings to the University and placed 19 more on loan.

Sneaking a peek

Each year, the Blaffer Gallery displays six exhibitions, two of which are for students' projects and four of which display international artwork.

Essentially, there are two types of student exhibits. The first is for undergraduate students and the second is for the Masters of Fine Arts graduating class, whose masters display their art as their theses.

"We are serving the college community by hosting two major exhibitions for students a year," said Thuy Tran, director of public relations and membership.

The student shows run each year from May through June.

The other type of show displays international artwork selected by the curator of the gallery.

Gallery Director and Chief Curator Don Bacigalupi said he takes many factors into consideration when selecting art pieces.

Generally, the work must be from the past 100 years and should have a significant substantial theme, such as the struggle of a woman.

Once the art type is selected, the curator can either piece the art and the artists together as a group with a theme or bring in a traveling exhibit, a show that has been put together by another curator and is traveling the world.

Behind the scenes

Each year, the gallery works with a budget of $600,000 to $800,000, using from $25,000 to $200,000 per show, Bacigalupi said. The budget is a combination of allocated University funds and charitable donations.

Lisa Chmiola/The Daily Cougar
(all photos in this sequence)

In the two weeks between exhibits at the Blaffer Gallery, many steps are taken to take down one show and prepare another. First, the outgoing pieces of artwork (above) are carefully wrapped up for shipping. Next (left), the pieces are loaded into trucks. Last week, Kenny Warren and Darren Davis of Precious Belonging Shipping and Transport load artwork on to one of two trucks.



When the pieces of artwork for the next show arrive (right), the crates are first unloaded and stacked inside the empty gallery. Finally, the pieces are removed from the crates and set upon pedestals for display (below). Tuesday, Assistant Preparator Young Chung, a graduate student in painting, and Chief Preparator Davis Northcutt ready a piece of artwork for the next show.

In order to determine how much money to allocate to each show, the exhibition schedule is planned a year and a half in advance, Tran said.

If the art is part of a traveling international show, it is delivered by a carrier service in 18-wheeler trucks. Inside the trucks, the art is carefully packed in heavy wooden crates surrounded by bubble wrap and tissue.

Workers who remove the art must wear gloves to avoid altering the art with the oils from their hands. Oil from the skin can drastically change art surfaces, possibly disfiguring and even ruining them.

Other factors, like humidity and heat, can also alter or ruin works of art.

As the art is being removed from the crates, an in-house registrar prepares a condition report, noting every little scratch and dent for insurance purposes. Translation: You break, you buy.

Once the art arrives, the curator determines how the gallery will be set up. With approximately 6,500 square feet of space, the Blaffer gallery includes two large exhibition areas, an upstairs gallery and a film room.

To accommodate smaller pieces, the gallery uses movable walls to partition a large room and bring it down to scale with the size of the art.

Exhibitions usually stay about two months, with a two-week period between shows to set up and take down the exhibits.

More than just art

In addition to the six exhibits the gallery displays, the Blaffer also runs two educational programs, "Hidden Treasures" and "Progressive Works."

"We believe education should start very young and continue throughout your life," Tran said.

Hidden Treasures is a six-week after-school installation created to supplement limited art programs in area high schools. In one such workshop, students worked with artists, culminating in a mosaic project displayed in the UH Fine Arts Building's courtyard.

"The project tested my patience, but the results were very rewarding once I completed the mosaic," said Frances Pollo, a participant in the mosaic project. "This positive feeling builds confidence in me to accomplish similar goals in the future."

Progressive Works selects students to work with various artists and art professionals to conceive, design and create their own works of art.

Both programs were started in 1988 to build relationships with low-income and culturally underserved students of inner-city middle and high schools.

In addition to the education programs for younger students, the Blaffer also has programs to help college-level students.

"In particular, since we are located in the University, we tap into the talent here," Tran said.

Specifically, the gallery recruits education, history and art majors to become education assistants creating interactive tour groups with children and adults. It also supplies up-and-coming artists with a variety of information to help them with their careers.

"We are certainly an archive of information for people who are interested in pursuing an art career or to display their art," Tran explained. "We can refer them to other places in town that would be appropriate for the stage they are at."

What to expect next

Staff members of the Blaffer Gallery are in the final stages of preparing for the next exhibit, Elizabeth Catlett: A Fifty-year Retrospective and Francisco Mora: Works on Paper, scheduled to run Oct. 24 to Dec. 20.

Catlett's exhibit will feature 60 bronze, marble, stone, terra cotta and wood sculptures created during the past half-century. The works are indicative of the artistis comments on politics, society and feminism.

Running concurrently will be will be Catlett's husband's exhibit, which will feature 30 works spanning the equivalent period in his Mexican modernist career.

The Blaffer at a glance

Gallery Information

Admission: The Blaffer Gallery is free and open to the public.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The gallery is closed on Mondays.

Location: The Blaffer Gallery is located at Entrance 16 off Cullen Boulevard, in Room 114 of the Fine Arts Building.

Upcoming events

Elizabeth Catlett and Francisco Mora will be speaking about their life work, Two Lives in Art: An Intimate Dialogue, from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Blaffer Gallery. Admission is free.

In addition, in collaboration with African-American Studies, the Blaffer will present Powerful Voices: Mid-Century Women in Art and Culture, a panel discussion, from 7 to 9 p.m. Nov. 5 in the College of Architecture Theater. Admission is free.

Also, the UH Dance Department will interpret Catlett's sculpture through movement at noon Dec. 3 during the gallery's Brown Bag Lunch Performance.


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