From Buddhist Sculpture to Andy Warhol, Columbia Houses a Museum’s Worth of Cultural Treasures

Eve Glasberg
October 10, 2014

Hidden within plain sight around Columbia's campuses is a museum's worth of art donated to the University over the past two centuries. The 10,000 objects in Art Properties enliven public spaces, decorate offices, adorn the Faculty Room at Low Library, and are stored in a vault in the recesses of Avery Hall.

The collection, part of Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, reflects all cultures, time periods and media, from Neolithic pottery, Chinese ritual bronzes, Etruscan pottery and Mesopotamian cylinder seals to Polaroids and black-and-white silver gelatin prints taken by Andy Warhol in the 1970s and ’80s and used for his portrait paintings of celebrities, royalty, drag queens and others.

Roberto C. Ferrari, an art historian and librarian, was hired as the new curator of Art Properties in 2013. He previously worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he oversaw digitization projects in the museum’s Digital Media department. In the short time he’s been at Columbia, he has already started reshaping Art Properties.

Ferrari said that historically, Art Properties had been perceived largely as a decorative collection since many of the pieces embellish offices and public spaces. But recently, he added, “the department’s mission as a study collection is being given more attention, focusing on education-related programming and curricular integration.”

Last spring Ferrari worked with Robert E. Harrist Jr., the Jane and Leopold Swergold Professor of Chinese Art History, and Ph.D. students in his curatorial seminar on Chinese art to conduct research on the Chinese bronzes and ceramics and Buddhist stone sculptures on permanent display in Low’s Faculty Room. Most of the material, a gift of the renowned psychiatrist, art collector and philanthropist Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, hadn’t been touched since it was first displayed in cases there around 1970. Sackler, of whom it was said, “he waves his arm and a museum wing appears,” gave more than 2,000 Asian artworks to Columbia.

Working with curatorial specialists from the Metropolitan and the Harvard Art Museums, the students conducted a hands-on study of the objects. Their research led to updated catalog entries as well as object labels that were used when Ferrari and his team re-installed the works in August. As an added bonus, pieces of Korean ceramics, also from the Sackler collections, were temporarily displayed in the Faculty Room, where they were identified by retired Harvard curator Robert Mowry as being very important works in the history and production of Korean ceramics.

Last winter, to raise awareness about Columbia’s sculpture, Ferrari started a blog, Public Outdoor Sculpture at Columbia, that features updates about the works and a Google map for self-guided tours.

In a recent post Ferrari discussed the cleaning last summer of three of the University’s most recognizable bronze sculptures: William Ordway Partridge’s statues of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. Since the Jefferson statue is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, the time was ripe for its facelift. And the Rodin, recently vandalized when someone brushed and sprayed gold paint onto parts of it, needed treatment to remove the paint and restore the protective wax finish.

Other well-known works at the University include sculptures by Henry Moore and Anna Hyatt Huntington as well as Daniel Chester French’s iconic Alma Mater on Low’s steps. The collection also includes the largest repository of paintings and drawings by Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944), a New York-based artist whose paintings also can be found in the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Museum. A selection of her works from Art Properties and Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library are now on loan to the Lenbachhaus in Munich through January for the first international retrospective of Stettheimer's work.

Assisting Ferrari is a team whose duties include inventorying and documenting objects in Art Properties’ collection. He and his colleagues spend a good deal of time inspecting paintings and other works hanging in offices and galleries. Because there is a limit to how much of the collection can be showcased in this way, they have begun developing an online inventory and exploring social media options to make more of the collection digitally accessible not only to the Columbia community, but to art lovers everywhere.

“Our goal is to spread the word about this vital part of Columbia’s cultural heritage,” Ferrari said. “Like many great museums, much of the art remains in storage, hidden from view, but we’re working to change that.”