Jan. 28 2009 12:00 AM
Edward Burtynsky's "Bao Steel #2, Shanghai, China, 2005."
Ever wondered what treasures are collecting climate-controlled dust in the depths of the Kresge Art Museum’s vault? (They won’t let you in there. We asked several times.) Well, now’s your best chance to get a glimpse, as the museum presents an exhibit celebrating its 50th anniversary, which will highlight acquisitions of the last 10 years.

The museum-spanning show includes more than 150 pieces and is broken into themed segments, such as “Old Masters” (mostly paintings by 18th century Dutch guys), “This Side of Paradise” (landscapes), “Modern Life” (lots of photos of steel, cityscapes and workers), “Strange Realities” (for the trippy and cartoon-inspired) and more that showcase different collecting areas in which the museum specializes.

At the opening reception Jan. 15, a steady stream of art enthusiasts, students and Kresge patrons wandered the disparate worlds, many marveling at the breadth of work and the impact it made being out all at once.

Chelsea Kinjorski, a sophomore English major at MSU who works the desk at the museum, took the opportunity to get reacquainted with some favorite pieces, such as Lalla Essaydi’s photographic study in Arab female identity, “Converging Territories #28.” “There’s a lot of things I didn’t ever know we had,” Kinjorski said. “I mean, we keep all this stuff in the vault, so no one gets to see it.”

Phil Babcock, of East Lansing, was transfixed by his attraction to a creepy cartoonish drawing of an amputee before bee lining for Edward Burtynsky’s “Bao Steel #2, Shanghai China, 2005.” Babcock, who grew up in an steel town, “loves the industrial stuff,” and this particular photo, with it’s messy web of pipes, is about as industrial as it gets. “Is this designed or just a hodgepodge?” Babcock asked. “There seems to be a design, because it is so complex; it’s like someone created a work of art without intending to.”

Who knew a heap of rusted metal could make such a strong case against "intelligent design?"

The Kresge has been stocking up on pictures like these, in part, because MSU photo curator Howard Bossen is putting together a show with the Carnegie Musuem of Art with a focus on steel scheduled for 2011. Susan Bandes, director of the Kresge Art Museum, said one way the museum chooses what to buy is to help build and be represented in shows like Bossen’s.

As a relatively young museum on a budget, Bandes said she museum’s goal is to fill the collection with pieces that help fill the gaps in a conversation about art. For example, Bandes explained, the museum had assembled a fairly substantial collection of landscape paintings, many of which were donated, but a major hole was the absence of a Hudson River School landscape. Enter “Autumn on Lake Placid 1873" by Alexander Helwig Wyant, the museum’s 50th anniversary acquisition unveiled during the opening.

“Since we can’t afford the big names, we look for pieces in excellent condition, beautiful works by artists who might be lesser known. We look for really fine quality, quintessential examples of a period, and the artists we can afford are not the ones who are household names but are very important in the history of art.”

Bandes said the museum also makes a point of buying in areas others are not paying attention to yet, a practice she likens to “timing the market.” She cites the museum’s collection of Old Master paintings as an example of getting in at the right time. “It’s very difficult to collect Old Master paintings unless you have a lot of money, so I look at what we have in that area, and I’m pretty amazed. We were collecting at just the right time,” Bandes said.

When it comes to more contemporary works, Bandes credited curator April Kingsley for having an eye for what is emerging in the art world and for starting collecting initiatives in the areas of Figurative Expressionism, cartoon-influenced art and a new kind of abstract work so well-crafted it looks like it created itself — are these styles are present in the show.

Bandes says most of the Kresge’s collection does fall on the contemporary side, and she’s looking forward to expanding and filling in those gaps as the museum makes the transition to the new Broad Art Museum, which is expected to be completed in 2010.

“Overall there is a preponderance of 20th century art,” Bandes said. “When we become the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, it doesn’t change our collection, it just says what we’ve been doing.”