It’s not every day someone walks in off the street and offers to give you 400 valuable paintings, but it does happen.
Just ask Gregg Hertzlieb, curator of the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University.
Hertzlieb said the museum was born in 1953 when Percy Sloan, a retired Chicago teacher, came to VU and offered to give the university 400 artworks, 260 of them painted by his father, Junius Sloan, an artist of the Hudson River School. The elder Sloan lived from 1827 to 1900, and, though not as famous as some of the other Hudson River class, this is much more than refrigerator art.
Besides, the offer included 140 additional pieces, some by other Hudson River artists and some by Frank Dudley, who loved painting the Indiana dunes and was well-known locally for his work.
“The university said it would gladly accept the whole bunch, and it became the basis of the museum,” Hertzlieb said.
It was a museum without a home and lived for many years in the first floor of the library. Still without a home in the 1960s, the museum did get a curator. The university’s art professor Richard Brauer developed an interest in the paintings, so he was given the job of museum curator. In 1995, he finally got a museum to curate.
That’s when the VU Center for the Arts was built as a place for art, music and theater, and the Urschel family contributed the money to house the museum in the building. Rather than naming it for their family, the Urschels asked it be named for the long-time curator. Brauer had retired by then, though he stayed on for a couple of years as interim director. Hertzlieb became curator in 2000.
Hertzlieb had been an art teacher at Chesterton High School for more than eight years and was looking to do something new.
“It was a nice thing working at the high school,” he said. “I had summers free, and I would do internships at the Art Institute of Chicago and go back to teaching in the fall. I was in the Works on Paper Department. Different storage is needed for works on paper, and you don’t keep them framed all the time.”
Now that he’s curator of the Brauer Museum, he teaches a class in the fall on how a museum operates and the work it involves, including recordkeeping, how to handle pieces of art, and researching the history of the works the museum receives.
“It’s the best job a fella could have. I like the people I work with. I really think the museum has some really fine objects that have been acquired over the years. That’s my favorite thing is showing these things. I love the reactions. Their jaw drops.
“I had a student the other day when we were standing in front of a bronze sculpture of a falcon, and all of a sudden he said it was his favorite piece in the museum. When I hear how other people feel about a piece, it gives me a different way of looking at it. It keeps it fresh for me all the time.”
Original paintings number about 5,000 now and include drawings, sculptures, photographs and some digital works.
“I think we are lucky to have it,” Hertzlieb said of the museum. “It was the Sloan gift that got it started, but it’s wonderful the way the university committed to it the way it did. We have an excellent collection that includes a painting of a Southwestern landscape by Georgia O’Keeffe.
“We have donors who buy articles for us. Josephine Ferguson is one person who acquired several pieces for the museum. We also have a monetary endowment from Percy Sloan called the Sloan Endowment that we can use for purchases, such as the O’Keeffe painting.”
The museum hosts exhibitions of well-known artists, including works by some of the Old Masters such as Rembrandt and El Greco, which were on display in 1995, and the photographs of Ansel Adams in 2000. The museum has held a couple of popular shows of the Dudley dune paintings as well.
This summer visitors can see the works of a couple of up-and-coming local artists, Corey Hagelberg and Brabant Lenting. Hagelberg’s works are wood cuts and sculptures, and Lenting is a painter. Both will be featured through Aug. 5, and the artists themselves are expected to attend a gallery talk with Hertzlieb July 10.