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Where did the big steel sculpture at UNLV go?

Who keeps track of all the artwork donated to UNLV? No one, it seems.

Talisman,” by Kevin Robb; and from the Vogel collection.
Photo: Leila Navidi

UNLV’s art collection has been paltry and, in some cases, mismanaged.

Claes Oldenburg’s “Flashlight,” trucked across the Hoover Dam and dedicated in 1981, has been a prized and cared-for possession. The Kevin Robb metal sculpture, “Talisman,” on Pida Plaza, seems to be in good condition.

But a large abstract steel sculpture by California artist William Wareham, installed in the 1970s, disappeared from the campus in the early ’90s. It seems to have been a groundskeeping incident, says Jerry Schefcik, director of the Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery. The sculpture was partially funded by a community member’s donation to the university. The rest of the funding came from the artist, who said a few months ago that he was concerned about what had happened to the work.

A mural by Rita Deanin Abbey, commissioned for the Judy Bayley Theatre lobby, was removed after about 20 years and replaced by work from California artist Clayton Campbell. Sources say the mural was damaged while in storage at UNLV and is back in the artist’s hands.

Scroll paintings donated to the university by Lilly Fong in the early 1980s were removed from Artemus Ham Hall because they are in disrepair, and Patrick Zentz’ elaborate kinetic “Heliotrope” in the Tam Alumni Building is broken. The scroll paintings had arrived in good condition.

Then there was the Frank Stella hanging in the Judy Bayley Theatre lobby that isn’t a Frank Stella. Officials believed it to be a valuable Stella, but the school took no measures to protect and preserve the painting that was given to the university by a woman who died before the paperwork was complete. The school learned that it was not a Stella when a reporter contacted the artist through a spokesman.

A collage from Stephen Antonakos

A drawing by Mark Kostabi

A collage from Stephen Antonakos

The care of these pieces raises questions as to whether UNLV is capable of handling entrusted artworks—especially in light of the 50 works from the Herbert and Dorothy Vogel Collection, which arrived on campus late last year through a national gift program through the Vogels and the National Gallery of Art.

Their collection of mostly minimalist works on paper was parceled out to institutions in each state. Nevada’s collection landed in UNLV’s hands following the closing of the Las Vegas Art Museum, which was its original recipient.

Additionally, talks between UNLV and the Las Vegas Art Museum continue. Patrick Duffy, board president of LVAM, says the museum’s permanent collection will likely be housed on UNLV’s campus.

Both collections will demand a new level of responsibility for UNLV, which does not have an inventory of its other artworks on campus, though Robert Tracy, art history professor and curator for the College of Fine Arts, says that staff has discussed the need to create a list, but “nothing has been put into concrete form.”

“There has never been a specific designee on campus who was in charge of overseeing all campus art,” says Jennifer Vaughan, a spokeswoman for the College of Fine Art. “The college or department of art has never been asked to be responsible for the maintenance of art that was not donated/gifted to the college. However, the new administration is very aware of the value of the art we do receive and is working diligently to ensure that all art be accounted for and well-maintained.” Pieces have been given to UNLV many years ago that the college was never made aware of, she says.

Duffy says that there are plans for LVAM to build a museum on campus, but that LVAM is still discussion with UNLV about the mechanics of what it would take to make the collaboration happen and that the museum would still be in charge of its collection.

“Right now,” Duffy says, “times are tough, but when times are tough, you get your planning and strategy together, thoughtfully and meticulously.

“It’s a natural collaboration,” he says. “The collection can be utilized by students who are studying conserving, curating and cataloguing. You get all the elementary schools coming onto campus. All the high school kids coming onto campus. Whenever we can bring those kids onto campus is a stimulus for higher education.”

For now, the university is focusing on the Vogel works. Selections are featured in VOGEL 50x50, an exhibit in the Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery, up through February 20.

And after that? “The Vogel collection was a gift to the College of Fine Art,” Vaughan says. “It is ours, we oversee it, and as such Jerry Schefcik ensures its safe storage in the Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery. Following its close, it will continue to come out for exhibitions from time to time.”

“It’s a huge deal,” says Schefcik. “It puts us on the map with the other 49 institutions on the Vogel site. It strengthens, reinforces and enhances the cultural commitment of the university.”

There is no watchdog group that follows campus art collections. The Association of College of University Museums and Galleries deals specifically with the ethics and welfare of campus museums and galleries and promotes the educational benefits of campus museums of all disciplines. More than 130 college and university member art museums are listed on its website.

It’s too soon to speculate whether UNLV’s future museum would be a member of this group. Its art gallery is not. The museum would still be owned by LVAM, so it may seek its own accreditation. Or not. LVAM has never been accredited.

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