A year ago, J. Daniel Veneciano came to the Sheldon Museum of Art with an ambitious agenda for the internationally known museum. A year later, Veneciano's impact is being both felt and seen at Nebraska's preeminent cultural institution.
The changes at Sheldon are physical and cultural and involve programming and the purchase of artwork. None are complete. But Veneciano said things have gone well in his first year.
"It's breezed past so quickly," he said. "I think we've gotten a lot done in a year. I really enjoy the support from the chancellor and the university. The staff has been great. Because of that, I've been able to do what I set out to do. I think everybody is stepping up and contributing."
A year ago, Veneciano's transformative agenda included: opening a Sheldon expansion; applying a "transnational" approach to the existing collection and acquiring new work and creating exhibitions based on that approach; and engaging the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus and Lincoln community.
Last week, Veneciano provided an update on each of those items, starting with the most visible - the proposed expansion.
When Veneciano arrived, he was charged with opening a Sheldon expansion in the University of Nebraska Press warehouse in the Haymarket District within three years. After considerable study, that project has changed from a renovation of the old warehouse to construction of a new museum.
"This gives us the potential for doing something really spectacular in the city of Lincoln," Veneciano said. "The new extension of Sheldon will really make Sheldon a phenomenon regionally in the arts world. That's possible because we get to build something new."
The decision to build new rather than renovate came after Sheldon staff worked with university architects and Sinclair Hille Architects to explore the rehabilitation of the old building. After some study, it became clear that renovation would cost about the same as a new building. Because the costs were about equal, UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman agreed to change the project, Veneciano said.
In addition to enhancing the Sheldon, the new building could serve as a long-desired entryway to downtown Lincoln, Veneciano said. But it will also perform the functions initially intended for the remodeled warehouse.
"The new building is to give us the capacity to show contemporary art in a number of ways that Sheldon cannot," Veneciano said. "But we also want to showcase more of the permanent collection and to draw in younger and new audiences. The building has to help us do that."
The original cost estimate for the project was $12.5 million. No public funds will be used to build the Sheldon expansion. Further announcements on the project are expected in a few weeks. The completion date for the expansion remains fall of 2011.
New approach to collecting
Last fall, Sheldon acquired work by eight artists, including Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett and University of Nebraska graduate Aaron Douglas, to form the core of the "African-American Masters Collection." In the spring, through donations and acquisitions, Sheldon added works by painter Felrath Hines, a portfolio from Trenton Doyle Hancock, two prints by Willie Cole and one by Faith Ringgold to that collection.
The Ringgold acquisition illustrates Veneciano's plan in buying pieces to fit needs in the collection and to represent aspects and groups in American art that have largely been overlooked in the past. Ringgold's print also fits into Veneciano's collecting emphasis for the upcoming year.
"We've established African-American," he said. "We're definitely doing women artists now. Through women artists, we can move into Latina artists and so on. It's not solely about ethnicity. The other area we're collecting now is important contemporary artists."
To that end, the spring purchase includes four strong examples of postmodern art - a pair of "signs" by Steve Lambert that incorporate advertising and irony and two paintings by Walter Robinson that take off on Mark Rothko, adding automobile emblems to the color fields.
A winter purchase included a postmodern piece, Vincent Szarek's fiberglass sculpture "White Wilson's Peak."
Purchasing postmodern art is trickier than buying modernist work or work by contemporary artists working in modernist traditions, especially given the volume of art now being produced.
"It's not just a matter of buying what I like or respond to," Veneciano said. "It's a matter of picking out artists I believe are smart enough to have a lasting impact, artists I believe will have a career. There's so much contemporary art being produced today, I'm trying to buy the smartest artists."
Veneciano also is planning to add to the Sheldon's nationally known sculpture garden, although he has no specific purchase in mind.
"I want to add something colorful and exciting to the sculpture garden," Veneciano said. "That's part of the challenge for me. I am going to commission a major artist to design the lights around Sheldon, so the building itself becomes another monumental work of art, an artist such as Olafur Eliasson."
Again, all Sheldon acquisitions are made through donations and funds from gifts or fundraising specifically for buying artwork. No public funds are used to acquire any work.
Sheldon's programming also is beginning to reflect a "transnational" approach to American art, with a major show on women and art, an exhibition on Mexican muralists, such as Diego Rivera, and a Native American exhibition on the museum's calendar. Because exhibitions are planned months and years in advance, changes in exhibition philosophy are reflected over longer periods of time.
This spring, Sheldon released a new mission statement that embraced the "transnational" approach to its collection and exhibitions along with a commitment to engage with the campus and the community. The museum is now taking steps to implement that engagement, including restructuring its staff and their responsibilities.
Interim curator Sharon Kennedy, for example, is now the Curator of Cultural and Civic Engagement. Kennedy helped organize Lincoln PhotoFest this spring and is interested in developing similar programs in various areas. Chinonyeranyi 'Chi' Kalu, one of three new Sheldon staff members, will be Sheldon's college night coordinator, responsible, in part, for the museum's outreach to students.
Those changes reflect a new museum programming philosophy, Veneciano said.
"It is decentralizing the (traditional museum) hierarchy," he said. "Programming has always been exhibition-driven. Education and programming have been done to complement exhibitions. What I want to do is make exhibitions (just) one department, so exhibitions don't drive all the programming anymore. Programming can come from many different departments in many different ways."
For example, the education department, headed by Karen Janovy, suggested an exhibition based on horses. The result is an upcoming primarily sculptural show in the Great Hall that will draw on the images of horses from Sheldon's permanent collection and from local collectors. Horse-related organizations will be invited to various events, and horse lovers will, with any luck, turn up for the show.
"I'm for putting a hitching post on the west lawn and having some real horses come to Sheldon," Veneciano said.
That kind of programming, he said, can bring new visitors to Sheldon, a temple of high modernism that can be offputting to many who are not familiar with art and feel intimidated by going to museums.
"That's what the programs are developed to do, really appeal to people who might not think of the museum as a place to go," he said. "Developing programs like that, that will bring people in, that's when you break down the perception of elitism. The other crucial factor in this is it's not all about bringing people in all the time. That's the old method. What we want to do is take our programs out into the community as well. That's another important way to break down the perception of elitism, when you come down your marble steps."
To that end, Sheldon has established programs in conjunction with the UNL School of Music, Haydon Art Center, Lincoln High School and Lincoln's Community Learning Centers. Sheldon also is purchasing a new projector for its auditorium to institute a film series which will present, for example, films about Vietnam by Vietnamese artists. The film series is being done in cooperation with the Ross Media Arts Center.
Look to the futureIn his first year, Veneciano has been able to expand the Sheldon staff, adding a membership specialist, a full-time security guard and a curatorial assistant. One position remains to be filled, however. That spot was initially designated as a senior curator, and a search for the person to fill it began in January. A highly qualified candidate from New York came to Lincoln and was interviewed earlier this month, but then accepted a higher-paying position in New York.
Veneciano said the search will continue, but the job may change from senior curator to curator of transnational American art, a position he proposed last year. The difficulty in filling the curatorial position has been the major setback in Veneciano's first year.
"Beyond that (loss of the potential curator), I can't think of any frustrations," Veneciano said. "I just wish I could clone myself. There's a lot of work to do."
Reach L. Kent Wolgamott at 473-7244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.