Forgotten in the headlines about a $15.25 million donation and a controversial new building, the permanent citizens of the art museum patiently await their new digs.
They don’t let just anybody into the vault at the Art Museum of Western Virginia (soon to be the Taubman Museum of Art). Director of External Affairs Kimberly Templeton says that four out of five requests to visit the 1,000-square-foot room are turned down flat. But The Roanoker was deemed a worthy exception.
Because the collection of art contained in the vault is worth millions, security was very tight. No one must ever know exactly where the room is located, I was warned. Among other measures, we discussed blindfolding me and spinning me around a few times to disorient me before being led to the goods.
In the end, I convinced them that my sense of direction was so poor, I’d never be able to re-create the route for Bugsy and the gang anyway. If Tom Cruise had relied on me, it really would have been Mission: Impossible.
This was more than just an idle exercise in curiosity. The paintings and other artworks contained in that room are one reason why the art museum needs more space. Currently, only four percent of the museum’s permanent collection is on display, and the storage space is not adquate to house the rest. The new museum will display about nine to 10 percent of its permanent collection at one time, and will have nearly double the storage space for items waiting their turn.
While Roanokers engage in verbal fisticuffs over the new building’s look, hundreds of art gems are sitting quietly, patiently, in the dark, waiting for their chance in the sun. (Well, not really sun. Light is bad for many artworks, which is why they spend so much time crammed in the climate-controlled dark and even when they’re displayed, some can’t tolerate being “out” for more than a few months at a time anyway.)
When the vault door finally creaked open, and the rare light was cracked, I didn’t know where to look first. It was like visiting Grandma’s mumbledy-jumbledy attic, if Grandma were a serious (and eclectic) art collector.
For sheer, drop-dead, “whoa, Nelly” eye-catchers, it would be difficult to beat three six-foot papier-maché-and-acrylic figures created in the ’70s by American artist James Grashow. Standing in a row, as if they were waiting on line at K-Mart, were a farmer, a businessman and a miner – each with his own tale to tell. Together, they made some sort of statement – if I could just figure it out.
Among the hundreds and hundreds of stored items were swords and guns from the 1870s; a torso done on X-ray film with plug-in flourescent tubes to light it up (called, appropriately enough, “Torso”); a mixed-media-and-wood ferris wheel by James Harold Jennings, a major folk artist from North Carolina; and tons of works on paper, including 52 Japanese prints donated by Arthur Squires. According to Registrar Mary LaGue, who’s charged with caring for all the denizens of the vault, works on paper are by far the “largest portion of the permanent collection.”
It was difficult not to wonder what happened when the room went dark. I leaned in close to LaGue. “Have you ever seen them move?” I whispered.
Startled, she paused to recollect. At one time, she mused, Grashow’s papier-maché figures had been positioned to the left of the door, in a highly visible spot. But many a museum employee had turned on the light and jumped sky-high when confronted by the looming figures – which for a second looked just real enough to be menacing. Somewhere, Grashow must be laughing his (no doubt) papier-maché head off.