The University of Denver’s Hampden Art Study Center just got a new fridge.
But instead of housing leftover Indian food or canned energy drinks, this fridge will be home to delicate photo negatives, a recent addition to the University Art Collections.
“Right now, we’re working on finishing a grant project where we’re rehousing negatives,” explains interim collections manager Nathalie Carlo.
Carlo opens the fridge, clean and gleaming white, and points to a little thermometer. There aren’t any photos inside just yet.
“We’re having a little difficulty just monitoring the temperature in here,” she says. “We have to be able to monitor it from off-site.”
The negatives fridge is just one of the many ways the Hampden Center stores the hundreds of works of art that make up the University Art Collections. In fact, the Hampden Center site houses just one-third of the University’s total collection.
Photos are stored flat, in stacks of boxes. Framed art—including an original Warhol—is hung on moving wall-mounted racks. And statues, pottery and other 3D art sit on shelves and in glass cases.
University Art Collections curator Geoffrey Shamos explains that the University’s extensive collection houses three types of art: historical art; art that is valuable for teaching and learning; and art that can beautify DU’s campus. Art and art history classes often come to visit the center, along with conservation and archaeology students.
“The Art Study Center, we really think of it as an Art Study Center,” he says. “You know, there’s a classroom, there’s that print study [room]. The storage—it’s not quite open storage, there’s the racks, but nothing is in a vault, nothing is collecting dust. The idea is that it’s all sort of active and you can engage with it, and it’s there for research. The public can come by appointment. And you know, it’s not like a treasure hoarding zone, right? It’s meant to be seen and enjoyed.”
Shamos is tasked with curating the collections—that is, helping to create a vision for the collections and overseeing the maintenance and storage of the art. He doesn’t have total control, though; any decisions about taking on new art or passing on unwanted art are made by a committee.
Shamos has identified two main priorities for the collections moving forward. First is to procure—either by purchase or donation—more art by DU-affiliated artists.
“We want to tell the story of art and creativity at the University of Denver,” he says, adding that many collectors of these artists might well be interested in promoting their legacy by making their works available to scholars via the Hampden Art Study Center.
Shamos’ second priority is to enrich the University’s collection of art made by Native and BIPOC artists. (BIPOC is an acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color.)
“Currently, we have a smattering of things—so there’s the Kachina dolls and other sorts of Southwestern objects. … There’s some Southwestern pottery, but mostly 20th-century, so not super old,” he says. “And we just got this great gift of Northwest Coast contemporary art—a lot of prints and some wood carvings, as well.”
The collections team exercises great care in taking in and storing Native and Indigenous art, working with a coordinator from the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) program to determine if art should be repatriated.
“It refers certainly to Native remains that are in a lot of collections—you know, human remains—but also sacred objects,” Shamos says. “Those should be repatriated to their home tribal communities.”
Due to limited space and other restrictions, the center can’t accept all the art that is donated to the collections. Some pieces are fakes or illegal reproductions, and in those cases, the art is disposed of. Other intake factors include ethical concerns—are the pieces sacred or of questionable provenance?—and whether the art collections committee feels that the works belong in DU’s collection.
The center does accept some things that other art collections or museums would decline—torn art and broken pottery, for example. These might be of little or no value to a museum, but they can be used as important, hands-on teaching materials for art and archaeology students.
Sometimes the collections team offloads, or deaccessions, pieces from its collections. “Deaccession is sort of like, yeah, that just doesn’t fit any of those categories; it’s not really going to be useful for teaching and learning,” Shamos says. “Its storage needs or conservation needs outweigh its value, in all the senses: financial, curricular, art historical. Or it’s redundant. Sometimes it does have value, but we have something that’s very similar.”
Some of the works have astonishing aesthetic value as well—and that makes them personal favorites. Standing in the foyer of the center, Carlo points to a colorful canvas. It’s a deep red, with mesmerizing blue dots of different sizes grouped together to make the painting appear almost three dimensional. “My personal favorites in this collection are all our Kirklands, Vance Kirkland,” Carlo says. “All of his dot works are dope.”