History of the Collection

History of the Collection

Origins of the Collection

In 1873 Dr. George Comfort, first dean of the College of Fine Arts at Syracuse University, secured several thousand dollars for the purchase of a series of plaster casts to be utilized as study objects. These copies of masterworks, in addition to hundreds of prints and photographs donated by Comfort from his European travels, laid the foundation for the Syracuse University Art Collection. Philanthropic donations of major paintings soon followed, including a portrait of Saint Andrew, attributed to Jusepe de Ribera, and Lucas Cranach’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes. Large holdings of prints, like the Wolff-Leavenworth Collection of Historical Portraits, were also acquired during this period.

After the completion of Crouse College, home to the present day College of Visual and Performing Arts, a museum gallery was established for the presentation of artwork owned by the University. Plaster casts, paintings donated by alumni and faculty, and other works of art were placed on long-term display for fine arts and architecture students. In 1949, George Arents, a University trustee, donated a group of 19th-century European and American paintings collected by his mother, Annie Walters Arents. Including works by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Jean-Léon Gérôme, and John Frederick Kensett; this gift would become the cornerstone of the modern collection and invigorated the University to build its holdings.

The University’s vast print collection surveys the international history of printmaking. A collecting focus, work by American artists, particularly those whose work pre-dates World War II, began to emerge in the 1960s. Three-dimensional objects -- sculpture and decorative arts -- make up a smaller but significant portion of the collection. Of special interest are the works of sculpture from the estates of James Earle and Laura Gardin Fraser, Anna Hyatt Huntington, and Harriet Frishmuth. Among the ethnographic and decorative arts collections are pre-Columbian materials from Inca, Mayan, and Aztec cultures, as well as Korean, Japanese, and American ceramics. The Ruth Reeves Collection of Asian Indian Folk Art and the Andrei Nitecki Collection of West African Art represent comprehensive surveys of 20th-century artifacts from these important artistic traditions.

Another Collection focus is the Petty Dunn Center for Social Cartooning. Established through a bequest to the University by Mary Petty and Alan Dunn, the Center houses a collection of several thousand cartoons and preparatory “roughs” by Petty and Dunn. Additionally, drawings by artists Constantin Alajalov, Boris Artzybasheff, William Gropper, and many others have been added to the collection. The Center boasts an impressive reference library for the study of social cartooning.

“It is necessary for the young artists to see the exemplifications of the principles of art in the works of the great masters, as it is for the medical student to witness the operations of skillful physicians and surgeons in the clinic; and to the public, a good painting, statue, or cathedral, is a more forcible and effective educator …than a long series of lessons or lectures. Hence the necessity for art museums” 

–Dr. George Fisk Comfort, 1869

The Schmeckebier Years

The University embarked on its most intensive period of collecting with the appointment of Laurence Schmeckebier as Dean of the School of Art in 1954. Working closely with Chancellor William P. Tolley, Schmeckebier brought an impressive number of objects to Syracuse throughout the 1960's. Ranging from the Cloud Wampler Collection of Prints, which includes master graphic works by Rembrandt and James MacNeill Whistler; to the Ruth Reeves Collection of Asian Indian Folk Art, Schmeckebier and Tolley were able to maintain an equally impressive level of quality. In addition, the Dean devised and implemented several programs to heighten campus and community awareness of the arts and the role they can play in education. Chief among these was a mural program where visiting artists executed large-scale paintings for various university buildings and an outdoor sculpture program that resulted in the placement of large-scale pieces on campus sites. Supported by the Division of Summer Sessions, the Campus Mural Program made possible the execution of important, large-scale works by American artists of merit. Of special note is Ben Shahn's mosaic, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, located on the east wall of Huntington Beard Crouse Hall.

Dean Schmeckebier was aware of the need to identify and maintain a focus for the collection, while at the same time supporting its encyclopedic nature. As a result, he decided to concentrate on strengthening the collection of American paintings (American art continues to be the primary focus of the collection's activity) by purchasing John Steuart Curry's Gospel Train, Reginald Marsh's Coney Island, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi's Forbidden Fruit. Additionally, he supported the development of ethnographic collections by providing University support for the acquisition of the Ruth Randall collections of Japanese and pre-Columbian ceramics, the Nitecki Collection of African Art, and Colonel John R. Fox Collection of Korean Ceramics.

The Collection Today

Today, the Syracuse University Art Collection is comprised of nearly 45,000 objects. Much of it is housed here at the Syracuse University Art Museum, in a temperature and humidity controlled area of Sims Hall. Beginning in 1994, the facility has undergone several renovations to create a series of galleries to present exhibitions and develop areas designed to bring classes and visitors into more intimate contact with objects. Recent construction has established a long-term exhibition area for American objects from the permanent collection. The Gallery of American Art contains notable paintings, prints, drawings and sculpture examining American cities and their inhabitants. An adjacent space displays important examples of American sculpture and glass.

Additional renovations bring to light more of the University's permanent collection than ever before. A once closed facility has become an open storage space where visitors are welcome to examine over 1500 objects illustrating different cultures and time periods in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. A connecting hallway contains further collections of sculpture, glass and ceramics.

In addition to the exhibitions installed in these main campus galleries and the Louise and Bernard Palitz Gallery at Syracuse University Lubin House in New York City, the Syracuse University Art Museum operates an active traveling exhibition program. The traveling exhibition program has lent numerous shows to art venues both domestically and internationally, and continues to extend the scope of the collection and its educational mission beyond the Syracuse University campus.

While the Syracuse University Art Collection has evolved over 145 years of active collecting, its mission continues to follow Dr. Comfort's original intent: to establish a resource that provides meaningful encounters with objects through the acquisition, preservation and interpretation of the collection to the University community of students, faculty and staff, alumni, and to the region's general public.