Henry Matthews Interview
Transcript of March 16, 2015 Henry Matthews
By Mary Isca Pirkola
For recording purposes, please introduce yourself and explain what your position involves.
My name is Henry Matthews, I am Director of Galleries and Collections at Grand Valley State University, and I’m in charge of the art collection. I’ve been here since 1998, at the invitation of President Don Lubbers, now President Emeritus Don Lubbers. He had the idea of bringing me to Grand Valley to create a collection of art and a program that would incorporate art throughout the physical plant of the university. At the time, and I accepted the invitation and started on December 1, 1998. The first thing you do is a complete inventory of what you have. We were a very different place in 1998. We had 12,000 students, the main campus was in Allendale, we had the Eberhard Center in Grand Rapids and we were building the DeVos Center.
So, to keep all that in context it was a very different place. So the first thing we did was an inventory through the physical plant and discovered we had just over 700 pieces of art. Nobody had really been in charge of it. The President’s Office had a master list, which wasn’t complete, but we started with that. Pieces were inconsistently framed and inconsistently installed and all the labels were just whatever they were. It was just sort of a haphazard collection that came about over many, many years, primarily as gifts and the occasional purchase by President Lubbers, who loved art, and continues to love art, and just wanted to have something in his new building, I should say buildings, and this growing university.
When he hired me we talked about what would this position be? If we could do anything we wanted, if money was no object, what would it be? So we started to explore that. It was a very exciting option. I came from the Muskegon Museum of Art where I was the director and former curator and so for the past 13 years I knew of Grand Valley and I knew Don through committees, but this was a whole new thing. It was a clean slate and we were able to put on it what we wanted. That’s about as good as it gets, and the idea was to bring art to the university.
One of my strengths is to attract artists and donors to donate works of art, so I think they were counting on me to bring that with me. It was one of the exciting things to do. Having been in West Michigan for 13 years, I knew the art community, I knew the area artists, we have personal relationships, I’ve had exhibitions with of many of them. It turns out almost every member of the Art and Design faculty, every tenure-track that is, was an artist with whom I’d worked in the past. So already there were real relationships with the faculty, which was a great place to start. So you obviously start with have many faculty exhibitions, which is a normal thing to do at a university, and you focus on students. President Lubbers was particularly interested in anyone on faculty or staff that made art, whether they were an 2 amateur painter, or did sculpture, or whatever it was they did he wanted to be supportive. He often commissioned things from them. I think of Dr. Paschke, a scientist on staff, I think he is still with us, but I don’t remember precisely what his position is. (Dr. Richard E. Paschke holds a Doctorate degree in neurobiology and psychology. He began combining art and science by sculpting anatomical models to use in teaching.) But he did bronze sculptures – on Sundays. And President Lubbers gave some commissions to him. And that’s how the collection came about at the time.
GVSU Galleries & Collections
How has the collection expanded and changed over the years?
It was very exciting to have a clean slate. They gave me a gallery, which is in what we now call the PAC, the Performing Arts Center. It was a room that had not been finished. I think it was a dance studio. It had a great wood floor. The back preparatory room had shower stalls, they gave me that space and we finished it with doors and a lighting system and we started to have regular hours, which hadn’t happened before. And a regular space with changing exhibitions. So that was an important constant. People needed to know that on Tuesday we would be open from this time to this time every Tuesday. So that was the simple stuff.
Being a university, I wanted to focus on students of course. One of the things I really wanted to do was acquire a work of art from every Art and Design student, but also from students in the School of Communications, students who made things, in particular photographs. So we did regular student exhibitions in the gallery at the end of the semester, and when possible I tried to buy something from each graduating student – because a week later, they become an alum. Of course, once you’re an alum and you have a piece of art at the university, your relationship changes. And as I’ve told many of those students that when, twenty years down the road when you’re a billionaire, or gazillionaire, or whatever, remember that because someday you’ll want to have your name on one of these buildings. So it is a long term investment. [Laughs]
So I think it’s important that we purchase works of art from students, faculty. That was part of the ongoing program, and also had commissions for these news buildings. And as these new buildings came along we also had some opportunities to place art into them. In some cases it would be very simple – you buy a work of art and hang it on the wall. But in other cases, we had the opportunity to commission works for very specific places. Here in the DeVos Center we had several of those opportunities. Daleene Menning, who was a professor of ceramic art, had been there for many years and had a history of working with students on very large and complex projects. She did one of those with students here in the west wing, in the lobby in front of the library. It involved hundreds of small pieces, kind of a puzzle in a rounded niche setting, and it was a fabulous project.
One of our alums is Hubert Massey, a fabled football star during his time as a student here, but also an amazing artist of considerable importance, particularly in the Detroit area. We 3 commissioned him to create a true fresco, think of Renaissance artists Michelangelo, Di Vinci, who did fresco in wet plaster. There are many, many wonderful stories such as that that we could go on about for days.
For example in Hubert’s case, the fresco he brought, which was literally a chunk of wall about five-by-seven feet at the time, about four or five inches deep. He had made that in his studio, but when he brought it here, the opening was just a little too small. It was just one of those awkward moments. We had special equipment to lift the piece, which weighed hundreds of pounds, and we hoped to just slide it in, but the opening was just an inch or two too small. So that was a miscommunication on various parts that had to be resolved, but it couldn’t be resolved then and there and he literally had to take it back. I remember it was a late Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend and none of our colleagues at local museums were available. We had no place to store it. The building, the north entrance to the DeVos Center, I call it the Burger King side, was an active construction site. It was too big to put on the elevator to put elsewhere, so he literally had to take it back to Detroit. A few weeks later, after more communication, they opened the hole, made it bigger, and he brought it back. There are literally hundreds of stories like that that I think are kind of fun. Today we can laugh about them, but at the time they were not so funny and we had to solve them. [Laughs]
The George and Barbara Gordon Gallery
One of the exciting features of DeVos Center is the George and Barbara Gordon Gallery. How did it come to be?
Well that’s a particularly exciting story. Let’s put all of this in context. Today, 17 years after I started at Grand Valley, today in 2015 we have 13,000 works of art. And remember back in 1999, we had about 700 works of art. So, great changes have happened in this time period. In those early days, Don, President Lubbers, had a great relationship with Mr. and Mrs. Gordon, Barbara and George Gordon. They played golf and had a relationship, a donor relationship as well. At some point, George Gordon offered a gift of 37-38 of his Alten paintings to the university. There are a lot of details we don’t need to go into, but in the end they were offered to us as an institution. And of course Don was very excited about the possibilities. This was a serious gift, a serious collection and brought our collecting at that time to a whole new level of importance. It was determined at that time that there was a room in this building, literally one floor below us, that was to be a multi-purpose room where meetings could be held, and it was determined that that would become the George and Barbara Gordon Gallery. At that time it was a single room, lots of windows but a single room, rather fancy, like so much of this building, it was built at a slightly elevated level from what is typical in a university structure. I think people are often surprised about how well appointed this building is with wood and tile and so forth. So we placed that initial gift of paintings in that room and hung them salon style, which is one on top of another, 13:12 because we had great height and there simply wasn’t enough running space around the room to hang them side by side, one by one in the traditional manner. It looked great, people were very happy. They had all been cleaned and framed, in some cases they had original frames that Mathias Alten had actually carved, in other cases they had period frames. 4 The Perception Gallery owner Kim Smith, which is a local gallery that specializes in Mathias Alten and handles his works a great deal, had a real connection with the framing as well.
Do we want to point out that the Gordon Gallery is exclusively dedicated to works by Mathias Alten?
Yes, So when Don Lubbers determined that this room would be dedicated to this collection, the Gordon Gallery, let me be clear, it was only the Mathias Alten collection that would be shown in this space. And we had a storyboard that tells who the Gordons are and how they came to collect Altens. Though we named it the George and Barbara Gordon Gallery, Barbara will tell you that this is really George’s collection. He is a compulsive Alten collector and continues to this day to collect and there is no such thing as enough. Any of us who collect – be it bow ties, purses, shoes, whatever it is you are obsessive about, you can never have enough. There is always another one, two or three, a better one, there’s always the chase. Simply the chase of finding a fabulous example is the thrill for him and for so many of us who do collect.
When did you first meet George and Barbara Gordon and how has your relationship with them evolved over the years?
Technically, the George and Barbara Gordon Gallery opened when this building opened in 2001. But of course we were installing prior to that and I had the opportunity to meet George prior to that. At that time George had (business) offices in downtown Grand Rapids. He had his own office, but also another, larger room next door that he literally used as his art gallery. He would use it to show his art. He was always collecting and showing his art. It was like his own little museum and he was curator, director, everything, and loved showing off his art and invited people to come by. Sometimes he would sell pieces, trade pieces, it was really his world. He was really, and is still, a businessman and so this was something he did on the side as a hobby – on a whole new level.
When he decided to donate his initial gift to Grand Valley, he actually had more paintings, but the initial gift was of a particular group of art. We placed it in this room and it was the beginning of an Alten collection at Grand Valley and it immediately triggered other Alten gifts, including some by Alten family members. (Alten Granddaughter) Anita Gilleo, for example, gave us three little portraits of the same model in various costumes. Gloria Alten Gregory ended up giving us beautiful double portraits, one of her mother and one of her father, when they were engaged, decades ago. The father-in-law, Mathias Alten, painted them as a wedding gift. We have that and that’s an interesting story because you might think, why didn’t the family keep these? They had many other Altens, in fact they were dispersed by Gloria amongst the family, but who gets Grandma and Grandpa? You can’t cut them up. It doesn’t really work to say, “Well, you get it this year, and I’ll get it next year.” It would really be awkward. So they gifted this pair of portraits to the university where it’s always on view, 5 free of charge, to the public and the family. So that’s how that was resolved. I thought that was a sort of Solomonic solution at the time.
Mathias Alten Collection and Archives
What has been your relationship with Alten family members?
I’ve met a number of the family members. The three primary people I have met with regularly are Gloria Alten Gregory, her sister Dianne Boozer, and then their cousin Anita Gilleo. Those three are kind of the Grand Ladies of the Alten family. There are others, but they are not very public and they choose not to be out in the forefront. But these three ladies, I’ve met their children and grandchildren and extended family. It is very clear that the Alten family and their offspring are very proud of what Grand Valley has done. By establishing this particular gallery, the George and Barbara Gordon Gallery, which is dedicated only to the works of Mathias Alten, we have, we the university, have said to the community that this is important, that we want to focus on this legacy and we want to build on it.
During these 17 years of ongoing growth, a number of things have happened. Among them are others have made donations, as I’ve said, and many others in addition to that. And George and Barbara, well George, continues to collect actively. That original 38 works has grown to, I think we’re well over 120 now, including drawings, watercolors and paintings, wonderful paintings of every conceivable subject that he painted during his lifetime. We know that James Straub, who has written the definitive listing of all things Mathias Alten, called the Catalogue Raisonné, has included over 2,000 works of art and is ongoing. That particular catalog is available online and can be continually updated, and is accessible to a global audience, so it is a remarkable achievement.
George continues to find works of art and continues to add to the collection. We went through a series of expansions. We started with one room, then a few years later in 2008, we expanded the building physically outward, to add a second room, creating a suite, and the building went up three floors, but the gallery went out two rooms. That was pretty remarkable. In one swoop we double the space and accommodated these new gifts. At that point we formed a Gordon Gallery advisory committee, which of course includes George and Barbara Gordon, and Don Lubbers, myself and others. We meet regularly and talk about plans. And so that first expansion adding a second room was significant. We also formed a Friends of Alten group. It’s a membership group that has very levels, so you can pay a little or be very generous, you have an expansive choice. Those members meet several times a year and we have programs for them – lectures, musical performances, all kinds of things. George has spoken about his collection, music students have written original scores in response to Alten works, and performed them in the gallery. That has been a very popular program; we’ve done it several times. Right now we are talking with the Grand Rapids Symphony about doing a similar program where they are composing music in response to the Alten collection that will then be performed sometime during ArtPrize, so it’s a collaboration in the community, it just keeps growing – but then the collection also keeps growing.
We’ve had another expansion in 2012. We expanded to the second floor, which we’re sitting in now. It is the size of the entire gallery on the floor below, so we’ve double in size again. And I can tell you now, that there are a number of paintings we have received in the past year that are not out yet. We’re planning a redo in 2016, which I’ll talk about in a moment, but you can’t just sort of re-hang things. You need to repaint and do other things, which gets complicated. We’re planning on adding these new gifts within a year.
It sounds like the university has been very supportive of your efforts. Can you speak about the increase in your staff and other support to help fulfill the Galleries & Collections’ mission?
Before I talk about the staff, I’d like to mention how the collection has grown in other ways. The archival materials, most notably those donated by Gloria Alten Gregory who gave us all of her family archival materials. That means postcards and letters, catalogs and photographs, all the kinds of things you collect as a family that belonged to grandpa, but now what do you do with it? Now that the university has made a commitment, now with three expansions, the original plus two expansions, it’s very clear that Alten is here to stay. It’s very clear that we’re saying, “This counts, this matters.” Certainly in the art community that this is an artist who left a legacy, and important legacy in this community, but also in the greater community because he really was an American artist national renown, and we call him an impressionist because he falls into that category. The university has shown a real commitment to telling that story and keeping that legacy alive. There’s a fabulous timeline in the hallways that speaks to that as well, and we have plans to continue expand it.
So yes, the Art Gallery staff has grown. When I was hired it was just me, and then we hired a part-time secretary, and now we are a staff of about twelve, plus students, and we can barely keep up. Not only have we grown the collection to 13,000 works of art, there’s the management of it, and that has a life of its own as we add new buildings and hundreds of works of art at a time and move whole departments around campus and art has to move with them, and that whole legacy. We also do exhibitions. So in addition to the Gordon Gallery, we have a total of six exhibition sites that are constantly changing and rotating. That takes people. Good people and smart people and we have a lot of that.
Speaking of rotating exhibitions, there was a traveling exhibition of some of the Alten collection. Can you tell us about that?
That was so exciting in 2011, really 2010 and 2009 is when we started to prepare for it. I need to back up for a second. The reason we did that is because Grand Valley goes to Florida every year to present programs to the hundreds of snow birds who go there, so they don’t forget us. The Development office arranges programs by history professors and others that would be of interest to that audience. And of course while we are down there we are trying to expand our audience and our exposure of Grand Valley. Well of course I’m pushing for art.
7 Let’s bring down an art show. Let’s talk about the art collection, because these are people who collect. If we don’t ring that bell, who will? Well, at some point they actually listened to me, to my great amazement and surprise. So we were asked to organize an exhibition of Alten paintings, with George and Barbara’s blessing. I think it was about 30-40 paintings. And that’s a complex project. You not only have to decide what that story of Mathias Alten will say – what he painted, who he was and all that, but also the physical plan for doing it. You need to build custom-made crates for those particular paintings, they have to be wrapped and be able to slide in and out. It takes particular people to bring the art down and unwrap and install it at the other end. There are condition reports that have to be dealt with. You know every piece of art has to be looked at very carefully for any damage, any change. We were very lucky and nothing happened during this project. Everything came back fine. And the show was held in Naples at an art center, and like I said, there was a lot of planning in the two years ahead of the show. Then of course there was a big party and a dinner along with the exhibition. The Grand Valley program in Florida is typically a one or two day experience. You come in and have your program, a dinner and you’re done. Yet this exhibition was up for weeks. So there was an opportunity on a daily basis for weeks to showcase Grand Valley. Posters were up around town, newspapers were filled with stories about the exhibition from Grand Valley. So this was a terrific opportunity to wave your flag.
In this case the Grand Valley and Mathias Alten flags were waved. It was a big, big success. People still talk about that exhibition. And I think it is just a matter of time before we go back down with either another Alten show, or perhaps other selections of Grand Valley’s 13,000 works of art.
So maybe here would be a good time to talk about future plans for traveling exhibits to other areas and also talk about the Alten Book Project?
Yes, let’s talk about both! Right now we are at a space where we have two floors of Alten works on exhibit, as well as other Alten works that don’t fit and are exhibited throughout the university as well. The Alten collection continues to grow, no question about it. So the big question that will come in the near future is, do we expand the galley again? Do we simply rotate what we have on exhibit, or make it more crowded and show more art? All those questions have to be explored and resolved. We certainly are going to do a couple of things.
We are literally right now working on a really exciting project – a book. We are creating a really yummy, Alten coffee table, think candy box type book that you want to sort of lick every page. It’s really going to be something. In part, we are re-photographing every Alten piece of art in the collection, using the latest technology so we can blow up every detail and explore every little morsel of every painting. So in addition to that we have Dr. Ellen Adams, an art historian in the Honors College, who is writing even as we speak a fabulous essay. And we also have Dr. Matthew Daley, in the Department of History, who is writing another essay covering a different perspective, focusing on Grand Rapids. So we have those features and I’ll be providing an introduction to place the whole thing in context, and we have all these photographs. We’ll have a reference to the archives. We’ll have a reference to the Mathias Alten Catalogue Raisonné. We’ll have all of that, but the purpose is to capture the legacy of 8 George and Barbara Gordon. That’s really the point. It’s going to be over two hundred pages and be just fabulous. Anyone interested in the Impressionists, Mathias Alten and art is going to want one of these books.
Now these things don’t happen overnight. It’s 2015 and we’ve been working on it for about a year now. It will be published in 2016. As part of the big bang presentation, we are going to take down everything in this gallery and the one downstairs and re-hang it, the walls will be repainted and some new works will be added that have been donated but aren’t out yet. It’s important to mix it up every once in a while and to tell the story fresh. It’s amazing how when you move a painting from this wall to that wall how people will say, “Well, I’ve never seen this one before.” And it’s amazing; it’s like changing the wallpaper and discovering something new and something fresh. And we want to retell that story and have that book at the same time to show the community. Sort of ring the bells loud again and make sure people are aware that we will continue to do this, which will inevitably attract new attention and new gifts.
Now in the meantime, let me say another exciting thing that has happened recently. The Grand Rapids Art Museum has transferred two important Mathias Alten paintings from their permanent collection to Grand Valley. They are two lunette paintings. They are very large and were originally commissioned for a bank in Grand Haven, then went to the Grand Rapids Art Museum in their former location (in the Federal Building) because they had the room. In their current location it is a bit more complicated to find that much wall space, but, the one thing the university has is wall space. So I was very pleased that we were able to work out an equitable agreement where they are now ours, though of course the label will always acknowledge the Grand Rapids Art Museum. They are on view here in the DeVos Center in the library, where they will be on view permanently. You know “permanently” at Grand Valley means, “Until we move things.” At some point maybe there will be a new building where perhaps they will be more appropriate, but today they look really, really good in the library. In fact, people have told me they look like they have been there forever because they fit perfectly. The subject matter is perfect for the library and so forth. So we continue to grow.
So after the Gordon Gallery re-hang, in the fall of 2016 will be the refocus of all this newness and freshness and retelling of the story. So once we have all that done, and we have the book, then that hardcover book will also be translated into an online version. The online version will be different because you can push buttons and go to links, and it will have a different life. A life of its own. We have people working on this right now. So we will have these various interviews, including George Gordon, James Straub, Kim Smith and family members of Alten will be interviewed before this is all done. So that online book you will want to read or hear somebody and suddenly the book comes alive. That’s pretty exciting.
So once that is done, it becomes part of a larger box, a portal, an Alten portal that includes all the interviews and pieces of art, the archives and Catalogue Raisonné will be connected to that, so anybody on the globe can enter “Mathias Alten” and come to the Grand Valley portal 9 about him and learn everything there is to know about him, that we know and can share with the world. So I’m very excited about that. Now of course I don’t do any of that. We have a lot of really smart people here who know how to do all that, so that’s what I’m really excited
How can we stay informed about what’s ahead and what’s available now?
We already have a lot of information on our Website, www.gvsu.edu/artgallery. If you go there today you will already see a lot, and when we fully develop that portal, with all the things we’ve mentioned, it will be there as well. Incidentally, the entire 13,000 works in Grand Valley’s collection is accessible there as well, including all the Altens we have.
All the Alten works of art are accessible there now. But this collection is part of the larger collection of 13,000 works of art. You can find all of those there as well. Let me boast a little. It is very unusual to have an entire collection available online. Most museums don’t have that. But because we have so many smart people here, we can do that. On our staff is Nathan Kemler, Curator of Collections Management, who has worked very hard with our IT people and grad students and created this Website and even our mobile art app, Art at GVSU, which you can download. It’s all there. It’s one of the advantages of being at a university.
That’s quite a few accomplishments. Are there any other future plans you can tell us about now?
We have already spoken about the portal, the book, the re-opening of the gallery, completely refreshed in 2016, but it continues of course after that. The Alten collection in particular we know will continue to grow. But we are now starting to talk about that other traveling exhibition.
Once we have the book and all the online elements in place, and everything necessary for a traveling exhibition, we are thinking our first audience ought to be Michigan. We are a state school and should share our treasures. This does belong to the state and we are the caretakers of it. We would like to bring it around the state. I’d love to bring it to the northern peninsula, to the north of the Lower Peninsula, to Detroit, and really share this with others and build a wider awareness. That’s the next phases of traveling a portion of the collection.
But then we’re really thinking bigger beyond that and travel it around the country and perhaps even internationally. Those are very long term goals, but very doable. All of these things are about money and funding and interest. All of these things can happen. It’s just a question of timing. And I’m very excited about it. So, come and see the show.