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"Untitled" (1980) by Schomer Lichtner: one of many works gifted by the Kohler Foundation and available for instructional purposes.

The Art of Sharing

A foundation working at the forefront of the self-taught art movement shares significant work with major collections across the United States – and, with St. Norbert College.

As preservationists from the Kohler Foundation explored the Maryland studio of ceramic artist Mary Bowron, Shan Bryan-Hanson (Art) was with them in spirit. And with them online, too: The Kohler team were, essentially, giving Bryan-Hanson a private studio tour via Facetime.

Bowron, advancing in years, had been concerned for the future of her body of work and anxious to see it placed in permanent collections. She had sought the help of the conservators, who in turn had invited Bryan-Hanson to join them in the artist’s studio. The curator of St. Norbert’s growing art collection would become a virtual partner in the selection of pieces ultimately destined for the college.

“I was asking questions throughout the process,” recalls Bryan-Hanson, “and they were pulling individual works from shelves so I could get a closer look.”

Art collections are built with knowledge, love, care, purpose. And they are built, most particularly, with the help of friends. Few have been more generous to the St. Norbert collection than the Kohler Foundation, which has added the college to its list of beneficiaries. It’s a list that includes the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the American Folk Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago, along with schools like DePaul University and Skidmore College.

The Kohler Foundation has an inspired and unique vision, committed as it is to the preservation of art environments and important collections of work by, primarily, self-taught artists. Equally important to the foundation’s mission is the assurance that the works it shares will be cared for in perpetuity and made accessible to the public. Pieces are gifted to places that make sense given the provenance, subject or style of the work; such institutions are as likely to be a small-town public library or a local school as a major art museum.The foundation’s respect for Bryan-Hanson’s eye and for the college’s ability to provide appropriate care, use and display opportunities for the works in its collection are among the factors that foster its generosity to St. Norbert. Bryan-Hanson says, “Gifts from Kohler have allowed us to grow the SNC Art Collection with many new works that provide visual delight, invoke a sense of wonder and are intellectually engaging.” 

She explains: “When I’m looking through work initially, I’m selecting works that for me are most representative of that artist’s larger work. I’m not looking for what I like best.”

The college has gratefully accepted works by significant figures in art history like Ray Yoshida, sometimes referred to as the father of the Chicago Imagists, and the Mexican modernist Juan Soriano, a contemporary of Diego Rivera and friend of the poet Octavio Paz. 

Work by Wisconsin artists is particularly appreciated, and recent Kohler gifts have included pieces by such figures as Kenn Kwint and Jean Stamsta. 

Stamsta, a sculptor, was a pioneer of the tubular knitting technique often used in her work. Bryan-Hanson is particularly excited to be able to add works representative of such signature techniques.

One of Bryan-Hanson’s curatorial goals is to add more works by significant women artists to the collection. She looks, too, for minor works by major artists whose reputation is such that they may not otherwise be represented in a college collection. And she looks for pieces that lend themselves to use as teaching tools – like Kohler-gifted drawings by the social realist artist Joseph Friebert and the whimsical Schomer Lichtner. Pragmatic considerations come into play, as well. For instance, the college has many lofty spaces for larger works such as the monumental Kwint that now hangs near the entrance of the Mulva Library. 

The Kohler Foundation views its relationship with St. Norbert as a strategic partnership that helps fulfill its mission to support the arts and education. Terri Yoho, executive director of the foundation, says: “We very much appreciate that SNC is sensitive to the art and utilizes art to expand their students’ horizons, as well as utilizing art as a teaching tool. It is a wonderful collaboration. Shan has a confidence and professionalism in what she does and the decisions she makes. Shan always looks at a possible art acquisition from several angles and thinks about how it will be used – in classes, for exhibition, or simply to enhance the campus. In all cases, she thinks things through to understand the possibilities and the responsibilities, and we believe she has made some very wise decisions.”

July 1, 2017