On average, between one and two percent of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum’s permanent collection is on view at any one time. Although we rotate many of the artworks on display in the Bernoudy Permanent Collection Gallery and special exhibition galleries several times a year, the good majority of the collection—roughly 350 paintings, 500 sculptures and objects, and 4,500 works on paper—will never come out of storage.
As collections registrar, I have seen it all – the good, the ugly, the overlooked. Everything is “on view” when I come to work and I can’t believe my good fortune. Yet even I spend the good majority of my days sitting in front of a blinking computer screen bombarded by data and digital images. Without leaving my chair I can Google other museums around the world, read a pdf of an 1893 exhibition catalogue, or search the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Having access to these rich digital resources is amazing, but they do not bring me the same guttural satisfaction or stimulate my mind in the same way as looking—really looking—at a work of art physically in front of me.
Every summer the Department of the Registrars inventories the collection to verify locations, condition, etc. It is a time-consuming task, but one I quietly look forward to. Screen by screen, box by box, I am able to see how the Museum’s collecting habits have changed over time as purchases are made and gifts acquired. Even after 132 years there are still mysteries to be solved about the earliest accessioned artworks.
If you are curious to know what I am looking at in July, follow the Kemper on Facebook or Pinterest. I will post a few pictures of some of my favorite artworks “not on view“. Better still, you are welcome to schedule an appointment to look at them in person in the Museum’s Study Room.
By Kim Broker (28 June 2013)