Wednesday, 01 April 2020 17:28

Opening the Vault

Written by  Amy McNeel
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Installation view of the Grand Rapids Art Museum Permanent Collection. Installation view of the Grand Rapids Art Museum Permanent Collection. Photo Courtesy of the GRAM

Museum permanent collections are mysterious. When we picture them, we see art covered in soft, off-white linens crowded in a vast, dimly lit room. It may seem a little creepy and a little haunted, but this image isn’t too far from the truth, as museum collections are often large, old, and held in protected facilities. 

At the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the permanent collection dates back to the 15th century and is held in storage facilities in the museum itself, according to GRAM’s Chief Curator Ron Platt. 

“We always have permanent collection on display,” Platt said. “We have galleries on all three floors and almost always our third-floor galleries are full of the permanent collection. We also present the collection in other galleries throughout the museum. Usually, those presentations are thematic — sometimes they relate to other exhibitions that we have on, so we can sort of draw on some of the same ideas and broaden it or bring it back to the collection.”

Objects for the collection are gathered by an acquisitions committee and many are given as donations. 

“We have a policy and we have a committee, a board, that considers acquisitions,” Platt said. “So it might be something that we are looking to acquire for the museum or, quite often, it’s something that is being offered to us. I would say that our collection, like so many collections, is composed of and by a lot of gifts.”

While the museum is offered many items, a minority are actually selected to be part of the museum’s permanent collection. In fact, presented collections or items are rejected about 95% of the time. 

The evaluation process is complicated. Platt said one has to ask, “Is this a GRAM kind of object? Why GRAM? Why now?” when looking at the pieces. 

“It could be something that complements what we already have, an area in which we already collect, or it could be something that fills a hole that we feel helps us tell a story or more accurately helps us describe the world.” 

Along with these considerations, the GRAM follows a long and detailed collection policy that reflects the thinking and values of the museum. The committee follows this policy as a guide when looking at possible additions to the collection. 

This spring, the GRAM presents two exhibits from the permanent collection: Beauty, Drama, and Nature and the more modern Useful Beauty

Beauty, Drama, and Nature features Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, which are a part of the permanent collection Platt notes the museum loves to focus on. 

“(Ukiyo-e was) really influential to Western artists as well, so you can see the influence of Japanese aesthetics in Western art, and that’s really interesting and it’s interesting to draw on that and to show how art is really global in the sense that you see the influence,” Platt said. 

“Nobody is creating art or design in a vacuum, you know; these ideas are in the air.” 

This collection will be open until April 26, while Useful Beauty will be open until July 26. Useful Beauty features 150 modern design objects. 

“Useful Beauty is really focused on mostly 20th-century design and that is a focus of the collection that we haven’t devoted as much space to recently, so we really wanted to show the scope and breadth of our modern design collection, which is pretty great,” Platt said. “We have some really amazing pieces.” 

Along with these exhibits at the GRAM, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and the Muskegon Museum of Arts are also holding exhibits from their permanent collections this spring. 

“For some people, they come back to see favorite works or they come back to see how we have added and where we have added to the collection. For teaching, works in the collection are constant and allow our education staff and our wonderful volunteer docents to work with school kids and other groups with the same materials, so that they can give them a good, real steady and consistent kind of education,” Platt said. 

“I think it’s important for museums that do collect, and are serious about collecting, that the collection is always a focus of what’s on view.”

Beauty, Drama, and Nature: Ukiyo-e Prints from GRAM’s Collection
Through April 26

Useful Beauty: Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection
Through July 26
Grand Rapids Art Museum
101 Monroe Center St. NW, Grand Rapids

Unveiling American Genius
Opening April 18

Looking Back, Looking Forward: Selections From Our Asian Art Collection
April 18 – July 19
Kalamazoo Institute of Arts
314 S. Park St., Kalamazoo

Shaping the Future, Celebrating the Past
May 14 – August 30

Glass: Treasures from the Permanent Collection
May 14 – August 30
Muskegon Museum of Art
296 W. Webster Ave., Muskegon

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