Brownsville museum’s permanent collection spans decades

Art educator and curator Karl J. Lieke pages through the museum's permanent collection catalog Wednesday, Oct. 30, as he searches for a specific piece in the permanent collection storage area at the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art. The museums’ permanent collection encompasses roughly 500 artworks from both within and outside the Brownsville art community.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

By Denise Cathey

Staff Writer

Frequent visitors to the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art have probably walked past the double doors off the Mary & Frank Yturria Permanent Collection Gallery.

Behind these doors lies the heart of the Museum  — the permanent collection.

More than eight decades of furniture, paintings, sculptures, lithographs and costumes acquired by the Brownsville Art League and the Museum through donations or purchases are safely tucked away, out of the public eye.

Much like a glacier, only a handful of works from the collection can be on display to the public at any time, the collection is simply too massive for anything else. All told, “it’s about 475 to 500 pieces,” art instructor and curator Karl J. Lieck said.

The powers that be have generally shown a willingness to accept work by artists both big and small from outside and in the Brownsville art community.

“The Museum has fortunately been very open-minded about the different pieces it accepts. Some were considered controversial at the time. Of course now during the internet age it has sort of tempered a lot of these strong feelings, but I don’t think we’ve ever…rejected a painting as far as I know,” Lieck said.

One of those works that Lieck remembers causing a stir was a painting by American artist Harry Anthony DeYoung. His 40 by 48 inch painting “Nude in Studio” depicts a nude woman with her back to the viewer bending over, her body and the artist are revealed in a reflection on a vase.

According to Lieck, when the piece was first acquired the nudity of the subject at such a large scale did cause some hesitation in exhibiting the piece.

Tags from years of previous exhibitions are tacked to the back of Harry Anthony DeYoung’s painting “Mexican Woman” as curator Karl J. Lieke pulls the piece out of storage Wednesday, Oct. 30, at the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

“It’s very interesting art, but there were certain reservations about ‘well should we hang it’ because it’s a very large painting,” Lieck said.

Nowadays, the painting’s subject doesn’t get much attention.

“You get a few giggles from some kids and they point,” Lieck said.

DeYoung is just one of many artists in a collection that boasts works from famous surrealist Salvador Dali to recent work by Polish contemporary artist Bartosz Beda. With such a varied collection, keeping track of what the Museum has can be a herculean task.

Enter Facility Manager Isabel Valle: Valle has been working since the end of August to locate, photograph and update the Museum’s catalog. Sometimes, finding a work can be the hardest part of the process.

“When someone else who is not me comes and takes a piece, from the Museum, they take it and when they bring it back they don’t put it where it was before,” Valle said in Spanish.

Not only does Museum staff need to know what work they have, they also need to know that they’ll still be in one piece by the time they’re exhibited.

Fluctuations in temperature, improper handling, light and humidity can be disastrous for the integrity of the collection.

“[Work] can be damaged and that can be a really big loss for the Museum. This [collection] is all art pieces that we’ve been collecting through the years donated by the artists or the families of the artist,” Interim Director Deyanira Ramirez said.

Preserving and ensuring that each work in the collection gets into the gallery can be laborious, but Lieck, like many of the Museum’s staff, takes pride in what the collection symbolizes.

“This is a lot of Brownsville’s history. Like they say, to know [their] history you need to know their art and to know their art is to know their history,” Lieck said.