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Uncovering buried treasures

WILL SEBERGER/Arizona Daily Wildcat
UA Museum of Art chief curator Peter Briggs examines artwork in a vault in the museum's basement yesterday. The vault houses hundreds of pieces that are rotated in and out of display at the museum, as well as pieces the museum cannot display.
By Orli Ben-Dor & Celeste Meiffren
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, January 21, 2004
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Down a flight of stairs and behind locked doors lies 97 percent of the University of Arizona Art Museum's permanent collection. From Rembrandt to Rothko, and Picasso to Pollock, important and valuable artworks see daylight only once in a great while.

"I think (the museum) is more than meets the eye," Brittany Riehl, fine arts sophomore and employee at the UAMA, said.

But limited wall space (approximately 1,200 linear feet) stops the 4,500 works from being shown to museum-goers all at once.

"We need a new museum because this is not nearly big enough. Upstairs there's about six galleries and it's full of stuff. That's literally 3 or 4 percent of what we have, just upstairs alone," Riehl said.

The need for space in the museum has been the museum staff's battle for years. Plans for a new facility fell through in the early 90s when the UA faced a budget crunch, much like the one the university faces now. The museum addressed the issue in, appropriately, an artistic fashion.

The UAMA hung an exaggerated salon style show twice, the most recent about a year ago, which displays many art pieces in a compressed wall space.

"The point of that was to communicate with people that in order to begin to show the breadth and depth of the museum's collection, we have to stack them from floor to ceiling," Peter Briggs, the UAMA's chief curator, said of the successful effort.

... This is probably the best museum in Tucson.
Brittany Riehl
UA Museum of Art student employee

The lack of space contributes to the reason why key pieces are kept locked up in the museum's vault, frustrating Riehl and others. Still, the rested art is locked away for a purpose, Briggs noted.

"If everything was immediately available, the physical condition of the works would deteriorate much more rapidly. So the rotation is important in the sense of giving these artworks a rest," Briggs said.

And although it may sound silly, he said, even a sneeze or change of light and humidity can damage works.

"All these things add up over periods of hundreds of years to negatively affect the physical condition of the artwork. So by rotating them and having some on exhibit and some in storage, we're able to mediate that impact and spread it out to a much broader sphere of time," he continued.

Even though the rotation of works carries great weight for the upkeep and preservation of art, it still disappoints some that they cannot indulge in favorite pieces.

"I think people should be able to walk in here and see everything that we have. I understand why; it's funds and things like that. I just feel like there's a lot more interesting things that we can show," Riehl said.

Similarly, Noelle Firkins, art education senior, said she wishes more paintings were available on display at the museum.

"I believe that the art museum has very high caliber art. I think that it is very extensive for a university museum everything from Georgia O'Keefe to sculptural artists," Firkins said.

But Firkins and Riehl, though accurate in thinking that vaulted paintings don't see the light often, can still access them. The UAMA allows anyone to view an artwork in storage by appointment.

Briggs said the museum encourages students to take advantage of the artwork available in the vault, as the museum is part of the university and takes seriously its educational role.

"What do you need to see? You need to see the Rembrandts? OK, let's get them out and you can study them to your heart's content. It's not like they're just stored away and no one sees them," Briggs said.

So if it's Rembrandt or other major (or not so major) artists that are calling you, the UAMA might have it even if it's not on the wall. The museum can hold its own. It houses an impressive repertoire of works that, Briggs said, puts its collection in the upper echelon of university museums.

"I've been to a bunch of museums downtown, and even the ones around campus. This is probably the best museum in Tucson," Riehl said.

To make an appointment to visit the museum vault or to find out about the UAMA art collection, call 621-7567, or visit the UAMA Web site at

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