University art museums tend to be peculiar attractions, with collections built not through the careful choices of curators, but with the random gifts of donors.
A college never knows what will get dropped off on the doorstep by a grateful alum or a retiring professor, but the right donation — if it’s large and important enough — can reshape the entire collection and remake the institution’s profile.
That, in a sense, has been the effect of the Hartford-Tandstad Collection, which arrived in 2011 at the Gregory Allicar Museum of Art at Colorado State University. The collection, which was built by Fort Collins residents Torleif Tandstad and Larry Hartford, expanded the museum’s holdings in entirely new directions and inspired a $3.3 million expansion, which opened last month.
Torlief and Hartford worked as art appraisers, and their clients included several celebrities from Hollywood’s Golden Age, notably the dancer Gene Kelly, and they had an eye for sumptuous, traditional objects with rich histories. The 200 works in their personal collection, dating from the late Renaissance through the upper 19th century, are a mix of paintings, drawings and decorative treasures, which will rotate into exhibitions in the expanded museum.
There are oil-on-canvas marvels, big and small, in the array: a wispy landscape, attributed to Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot; a portrait of King Louis XIV by Pierre Mignard; a Madonna and child by Giovanni Antonio Sogliani; an adolescent rendering of King Louis XIII by Frans Pourbus the Younger.
The collection also includes a number of works on paper and important and highly crafted household objects. It is particularly rich in European portrait miniatures — 18th and 19th century, locket-sized pieces, featuring intricate visages of dressed-up, noble characters relayed in watercolors applied to ivory.
Because the collection comes from art appraisers, the pieces’ origins tend to be well-documented. The museum, for the most part, knows who owned the works over the years and where they resided. But there’s plenty of mystery in many of the objects that remains unsolved, particularly when it comes who actually created them. For example, is the work “attributed to Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot” actually by Corot or one of his peers or proteges?
That gives the collection even greater value to CSU, where the museum serves primarily as a teaching tool. Professors and students interact with the holdings intimately, using them for research as they investigate art history and conservation. Museum director Linny Frickman expects the university community will spend years putting together the puzzles around the work.
For museum visitors, the collection comes together to create an experience that is both new and unique to Northern Colorado. The Allicar Museum isn’t a massive institution — the 6,000-square-foot addition brings it to about 10,000 square feet total. But it’s rare to see such lush, early works anywhere outside of the major museums in Denver and, for that reason, it gains a firm place on the list of important, regional attractions.
That said, as a piece of architecture, the museum addition opts for functionality over any sort of forward-thinking design. The structure is basically a pre-cast concrete shell clad in brick and connected to the back of the former Fort Collins high school that now houses university arts programs. While other expansions tend to be showy and attention-getting, this one is content to be handsome and tasteful and hardly noticeable from the street.
There is some benefit to that for curators. Many of the museum’s objects are light- and moisture-sensitive and the tight, concrete boxes help to keep the indoor climate at the proper heat and humidity. The plainness also creates the sort of blank spaces that don’t compete with whatever is on display in the five new galleries.
It’s also plenty of room to exhibit a collection, with about 4,000 objects total, that could fairly be described as schizophrenic, due to the fact that it was assembled through various donations. In addition to the Hartford-Tandstad material, CSU has four other major, and unrelated, sub-collections that need showing off, including a significant selection of Japanese prints, a 240-piece strong assemblage of lithographs by 19th century printmaker Honoré-Victorin Daumier, a sizable lot of 20th and 21st century contemporary works, and a massive array of objects from Africa.
The African pieces look especially impressive in their new home. The pieces cover a lot of geography — Mali, Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Republic of Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and other places, as the university’s catalogs point out. Much of it was gifted by professors who did research abroad and returned with high-quality masks, carvings, jewelry and other objects that they gifted to the school.
CSU has a series of recently acquired clay pots from Mozambique and Zimbabwe that have not previously been on view. They are on display at ground level, in the center of the room, so you can get up close and see them from all angles.
The main event, though — at least in the new museum — is the Hartford-Tandstad Collection, and the museum has plans to grow it in both numbers and status. It put together a 15-year conservation plan and has already completed work on several of the pieces. Over the next decade, it will likely purchase objects that will fill in gaps and make the collection even stronger.