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Axel Hungerbuehler, curator at the Mesalands Community College Dinosaur Museum, shows paleontology student Mathew Roper how to properly excavate fossils.
Photo: Mesalands Community College
Community colleges with on-campus museums have found such institutions offer many benefits: They raise the college’s profile, help attract donors, strengthen ties to the community and enhance educational programs.
College museums come in various permutations:
A national reputation
Having a nationally renowned art museum has enhanced JCCC’s image, said Bruce Hartman, director of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art.
“It’s brought extraordinary national and international visibility to this campus,” he said.
JCCC was cited by Public Art Review magazine as one of the top 10 college campuses for public art in the U.S. and is the only community college on that list.
“An enormous number of people have come to campus that otherwise wouldn’t have set foot here,” Hartman said. “Some of those people have become donors or we’ve been able to otherwise engage them. The museum has helped make the college the cultural center of the entire community. People have a preconception of what a community college should be. We defy that stereotype.”
The 41,000-square-foot, $15-million museum opened in 2003, thanks to a $1.5-million gift from Jerry and Margaret Nerman. About half of the 1,000 works of art in JCCC’s collection are displayed throughout the campus. The Nerman complements the artwork with a full schedule of docent-led tours and discussions led by faculty members and local artists.
A collector’s vision
A generous benefactor also made the museum at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) possible. In this case, it was actor Vincent Price, best known for his roles in horror films such as “The House of Wax,” “Tales of Terror” and “The Fly."
Price was also a well-regarded art collector in the 1940s and '50s, said Karen Rapp, director of the Vincent Price Art Museum (VPAM), which was founded in 1957. He had visited the campus many times, she said, and donated some of his pieces to the college because “students in the eastern part of Los Angeles didn’t have access to original works of art.” (Below, video featuring an interview with Price about his art collection and a look at the museum.)
Price, who died in 1993, gave ELAC about 2,000 pieces of art over the years, including European and American paintings and Native American, Oceanic and pre-Columbian artworks and artifacts.
VMAP has been incorporated into ELAC’s brand-new Performing and Fine Arts Complex, which serves as the gateway to the campus and a bridge to the surrounding community. One of the museum’s mandates is to celebrate the area’s cultural heritage, so the inaugural show in the new building featured eight ELAC alumni who have become well-known artists.
Doing more with less
Despite the new arts facilities at ELAC, Rapp is mindful of the need to do more with less, as California colleges have been forced to trim their budgets and the increased emphasis on workforce training has meant less of a focus on the arts.
“To keep the quality high, the museum is being more creative in putting shows together to engage the audience in new ways and getting sponsorships for things that cost real money,” Rapp said.
A recent VMAP exhibit featured Carlos Almaraz, a founding member of a Chicano art collective who was close to labor icon Cesar Chavez. To make the show more relevant, the museum worked with the political science department to create an educational component that ties the exhibit to the classroom.
“We don’t award degrees, so there’s a bit of an underdog quality to having a museum on campus,” Rapp said. “Even though it has a long tradition here, it’s still sometimes seen as a bit of a luxury. We need to find a link to the academic mission.”
But having a museum as part of the daily life for students is transcendent, Rapp said. It’s provided jobs to students and given them the opportunity to interact with artists and gain real-world experience within the art world.
Mesalands Community College (MCC) in New Mexico has the only two-year paleontology program in the U.S. and also has the largest bronze foundry in that part of the country, so a museum dedicated to dinosaurs, with bronze replicas made by art students, is a natural fit for the college.
Mesalands Dinosaur Museum has classrooms, a lab and collection rooms, as well as exhibit space. Visitors can see students working in the lab—cleaning specimens and preparing them for display—as they pass by an interior window.
Among the items on display: real dinosaur eggs, petrified wood, dinosaur tracks, and insects and leaves trapped between layers of sediment, along with life-size bronze skeletons and paintings of prehistoric life. Some of the fossils have been donated to the museum, while others were unearthed by students carrying out field explorations at nearby dig sites.
Students are currently working on a bone from the hip of a shuvosaurus, a 206-million-year-old lizard that walked on two feet and was probably six feet from head to tail, said Gretchen Gurtler, director of the museum.
“We believe it to be unique enough that it could be a new species,” she said, and the students are working on justifying that designation.
Unlike the other community college museums described here, the Dinosaur Museum is partially supported by admission fees ($6.50 for adults). About 14,000 people visit a year, said Gurtler, who notes the museum is a popular destination for school field trips and tourists driving along the old Route 66.
The museum saves on staffing costs by having MCC students and interns from universities across the country work there and recruiting local residents as volunteers.
Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC) in Massachusetts has set aside space in a well-trafficked area of its lounge to display art, but because it doesn’t have a permanent collection, it’s more like an art gallery than a museum.
A current show featuring sports-related art was organized to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, where the Boston Red Sox professional baseball team plays. Among the works on display: oil paintings, quilts, watercolors, drawings and cartoons—plus iconic black and white photographs of the Red Sox from the 1940s, '50s and '60s.
“We’ve been trying to engage student athletes, so that was a no brainer,” said Director Laura Montgomery.
Exhibits in the BHCC Art Gallery often reflect social issues, and faculty incorporates artwork into writing assignments, which broadens the educational experience. For example, in 2007 when then-Gov. Mitt Romney was trying to reintroduce the death penalty in Massachusetts, a gallery show featuring a photo essay of death row inmates helped put a human face on the issue for students in philosophy and religion classes.
A more recent art show, “Art Gone Green,” featuring artwork made from recyclable materials, reinforced BHCC’s sustainability initiatives.
The gallery not only supports the college’s instructional program, it also serves as part of BHCC’s outreach efforts to the surrounding community, Montgomery said. Schoolchildren, seniors and others are invited to art shows, artists’ talks, poetry readings and musical performances.
Those events offer faculty the opportunity to share their works with the wider community and also raise the visibility of the college to prospective students and donors.
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges