Augie museum director sees the bigger picture

Posted Online: Dec. 07, 2013, 9:31 pm
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By Jonathan Turner,
ROCK ISLAND — The new director of the Augustana College Teaching Museum of Art is not an artist himself, but is painting a multi-layered picture of where he wants the college's art to go.

Preston Thayer, who started the job in October, brings 14 years experience leading museums across the country, including at two other universities. He was familiar with Augustana and became friends with former museum director Sherry Maurer, after they attended a museum leadership seminar in the summer of 2012 at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern.

"A museum can be the place where a heightened understanding or appreciation of visual culture takes place," said Dr. Thayer, who has a Ph.D in art history from the University of Pennsylvania. "Traditionally, museums have been a storehouse of old art. But all that art was contemporary when it was made. I'm interested in today's contemporary art because this is the time I live in. I think it speaks to students.

"The museum has a responsibility to be the guardian of the visual culture of the past, but I think things have changed so much in the past 20 years with the Internet and social media that my hope is to introduce more contemporary art to Augustana and the Quad-Cities," he said.

Augie's collection of 4,400 items, greatly expanded during Ms. Maurer's 30-year tenure, is "broader and deeper than the other places I worked," Dr. Thayer said. "It's not as strong in contemporary art as I'd like it to be. Here, the museum has been more aligned with art historians, so it's older art and broader."

He comes to the private liberal arts school at a key time, when Augustana plans to raise $8 million to $12 million for an addition housing a new art gallery, theater and music practice space.

An architect has been hired to draw up conceptual plans for an expansion on the west side of Centennial Hall, which currently houses three art galleries in 4,846 square feet of space. There are no estimates yet for square footage for the addition.

"We have been blessed by significant donations of art over the last few years, and throughout our history, and to hold these pieces of art without exhibiting them, to me, is not the ideal situation," college president Steven Bahls said.

"Dr. Thayer, in my visits with him, indicated there's a treasure trove of art owned by Augustana College. Much of it has never been displayed for our students or the public," Mr. Bahls said.

"I was also impressed with his commitment to display more art throughout campus," he said, noting that the college will show more art at the library and Center for Student Life, including more student art. "He's a great visionary. He'll be a great partner for raising money."

"The idea is to give the students the sense they're making some decisions, making a space for art for themselves. It's not something I'm imposing on them," Dr. Thayer said, adding that Augie has had an annual show for seniors, and he wants to open that up to have a juried exhibit for all students.

He has been museum director at New Mexico State University and Radford University (Va.), director of exhibitions for the Fredericksburg (Va.) Center for the Creative Arts, and most recently was curator of the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Fla.

"Preston Thayer comes to Augustana with much experience in the museum world," said Rowen Schussheim-Anderson, art professor and chairman of the Augustana art department. "Since his arrival on campus, he has become acquainted with many Augustana students, faculty, staff and administrators, especially those with a connection to the arts.

"With programming ideas that extend beyond the campus, he will certainly make his mark on the local arts scene," she said. "Likewise, his interest in contemporary art will likely impact the culture of the Augustana Art Museum in the months and years to come."

A native of Ann Arbor, Mich., Dr. Thayer's parents were involved in arts -- his mother a ceramicist, and his father was president of the local art association. He received his bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan in the late '70s, and worked several years in San Francisco for Levi Strauss as a law librarian.

Dr. Thayer earned a master's degree in the history of technology from the University of Delaware, where he met his wife, Marjorie, who's taught art history for 20 years. He taught art history and architectural history for several years, including at Cleveland State University and the University of Missouri-Columbia.

At Augie, he's starting to make changes to the lower level of the museum, and a main part of his job will be cultivating donors, choosing art to buy for the college, marketing exhibits and improving the museum website.

Dr. Thayer is especially excited about a recent donation of 95 works of Swedish art (from the 19th and 20th centuries) from an American couple who have long lived in Sweden and knew of Augustana's Swedish heritage. The museum director plans to make that his first major exhibition in the fall of 2014.

"My responsibility is to make the artists look good. We're stewards of this art, the art that we own," Dr. Thayer said. "When we bring in contemporary artists, they're guests. We want to treat them the way I would a guest in my own home -- with respect and to make sure the art looks as good as it can."

He plans to digitize the entire art collection, creating an online database of the works, eventually available on the Augustana website. Dr. Thayer wants to increase the college connection to town, and is looking into showing art throughout the community.

He's met with Rock Island Mayor Dennis Pauley and other local arts leaders.


Local events heading

  Today is Saturday, Aug. 30, the 242nd day of 2014. There are 123 days left in the year.

1864 — 150 years ago: A large pair of elk, captured in Iowa, were exhibited in Market Square today.
1889 — 125 years ago: The Rock Island Arsenal dam was being constructed under the supervision of Charles Frances, of Lowell, Mass.
1914 — 100 years ago: Mrs. Frank Mixer, of Rock Island, was the winner of the final preliminary for the women's handicap golf cup at Rock Island arsenal links.
1939 — 75 years ago: Sixteen hundred persons — many from war-fearful Europe — arrived in New York aboard the German liner Bremen. For two days on the trip, passengers were cut off from the world with both incoming and outgoing radio messages banned.
1964 — 50 years ago: Police reported five youths have been involved in the theft of about seven cars in recent weeks. Three of the youths were arrested Saturday afternoon, one was in custody as the result of a previous arrest, and the fifth is expected to be arrested today.
1989 — 25 years ago: The Rock Island/Milan School Board is asking the city to tear down Franklin School and allow the school district to pay back the estimated $100,00 cost during 10 years.

(More History)