The UCLA Library recently published the UCLA Public Art Collection as one of the Institutional Collections in the Artstor Digital Library. This collection is accessible to anyone on the UCLA campus network. See Connect from off-Campus for information about off-campus access.
Arts librarian Janine Henri recently asked Victoria Steele, the collection's curator, whether she could share some information about the collection and her involvement in the project. Her answers are shared below:
Please tell us about yourself.
So hi, Janine. Thanks for the opportunity to tell you about my project.
Let’s swiftly get the biographical facts out of the way: I’m Victoria Steele. I’m a librarian, art historian, and curator. I’ve run a bunch of special collections. I have a library degree from UCLA and a Ph.D. in art history from USC.
For purposes of this post, though, perhaps the most important thing to tell you about my personal history is my connection to UCLA. I came to UCLA as an 18-year-old freshman. Even with periods of studying and working elsewhere, I’ve spent some 34 years on campus. I love the school and feel tuned to its genius loci—the spirit of a place.
Give us a brief overview of the UCLA Public Art Collection.
Below is what I finally came up with to describe the Public Art Collection. But trust me, I spent months thinking about what to include and what to exclude.
The Public Art Collection consists of artwork that is located in public spaces across the UCLA campus and that has value and aesthetic merit. It includes paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture, mosaics, and murals. It does not include decorative items, reproductions, posters, loaned work, portraits of founders (unless by noted artists), rotating student work, and photographs of campus history. It also does not include work under the curatorial purview of the Fowler Museum, the Hammer Museum, or the Medical Center Art Collection, the last of which operates under the independent purview of UCLA Health.
How did this project come about and what role did you play in getting the project off the ground?
As I mentioned, I feel tuned into the spirit of the UCLA campus. And because I’ve always paid attention to the artwork, I was very concerned about the artworks that seemed to me more or less orphaned. I wanted to do something to help, so I reached out to Administrative Vice Chancellor Michael Beck. I prepared a document describing the situation and what might be done to address it. It seemed to both of us that the necessary first step was to create an inventory. Though I wasn’t particularly angling to be hired to do this, I did agree to take it on if he wanted me to. He said he did. Since I knew the campus, and had training and experience as a librarian and art historian, it was clear that I could get the project done more quickly than someone hired from the outside.
Were you involved in the photographic documentation of the works?
Most of the photographs were taken by me or my volunteer partner Michael Heafey. In some cases, I used an image I found online when, for example, a particular piece was unphotographable owing to the way it was hung.
Who created the descriptive data accompanying the images?
I created all the records myself.
I see that there are now over 473 images in this collection. Does each image represent a single object or are there multiple views of some works?
Single objects. However, in two cases I discovered an additional copy of a print that I had already found elsewhere and had entered in the database. In those cases, I noted the additional location in the record.
In two other instances, I created a single record for a body of work by one artist when I judged that item-level cataloging was not merited.
Is the collection being added to?
Yes, but mostly in an ad hoc and very decentralized way. We’re constantly being offered work by artists, estates, and owners of artwork. We need someone to manage and vet these offers, properly handle the donation process, and find the best location for artworks we accept. I keep adding to and updating the project in JSTOR Forum.
Can visitors to the campus view all of these artworks at any time (once the Safer at Home orders are lifted) or are some of these works in buildings or departmental offices that have controlled access?
Yes and no. I created records only for items that are publicly viewable. However, some of the items are in departmental offices and other areas that are closed evenings and weekends. For example, one of my favorite pieces is a fun neon piece by Frank Romero called Family Car with Dog from 1992 (below) that hangs in the administrative offices of the Chicano Studies Research Center.
Where there specific factors that influenced your decision to publish this content through JSTOR Forum?
JSTOR Forum was a godsend! There’s an excellent section on JSTOR Forum’s website that explains in detail what its advantages are. But here are some of the main factors for me:
- there was no additional cost to UCLA since the Library already subscribes to it
- the system is widely used for describing visual collections
- the system is underwritten by the Mellon Foundation specifically for the nonprofit sector; it was designed so that it will never become obsolete, as commercial products do
- there was no need for additional infrastructure or IT support
- data can easily be shared across the campus with all stakeholders
- it is flexible and easy to use
- data is accessible via the web anytime, anywhere (and password protected)
- the system allows for the creation of standards-based records very efficiently by means of bulk editing tools and easy access to controlled vocabularies like ULAN
- the system is easily customizable
Something that was cool about using JSTOR Forum was that it allowed us to know for the first time which artists are represented in multiple locations across campus.
Another really great thing about the project involved the Medical Center Art Collection. They had been using a very old proprietary art management system that was no longer supported. For a modest fee, our colleagues at JSTOR Forum migrated all their records.
What kinds of challenges did you run up against?
There were so many.
One was a lack of labeling for scores of works. I had to do quite a bit of sleuthing to figure out what they were. Naturally, after all the effort of identifying them, I felt duty-bound and personally compelled to create wall labels for all of them. This took a lot of work.
A second challenge involved doing something about sculpture that was in bad shape. It became a crusade of mine to get dirty and neglected pieces restored. However, because I have had no budget whatsoever, I had to get creative. My first step was to request treatment proposals from conservator Andrea Morse. Then, once I had real figures about cost, I reached out to individual departments and units to request funding. I’m very gratified to have had some successes, as you will see in the before-and-after pictures below of three sculptures that we’ve cleaned and restored. Nevertheless, I’ve got quite a few more that I’m still working on.
Elaine Krown Klein
Faculty Center Rose Patio
Eliseo Mattiacci (1940-2019)
Occhio del Cielo
North lawn behind Royce Hall
In front of the Boyer Institute
Any surprise art finds?
One of the biggest surprises was a 30-ft. long mural by Millard Sheets and Susan Lautmann Hertel dating from ca. 1958 on the 4th floor of the Factor Building (below), which houses the Nursing School. I’m trying to get it restored and a protective barrier placed in front of it to keep the nursing students from leaning on it, as seen below.
Can you recommend a few pieces that people should go out of their way to track down?
Yes. Thanks for asking. I will tell you about four of them.
But first let me say that anyone interested in our public art should check out the terrific art collections in the Luskin Conference Center, the Anderson Graduate School of Management, and in the various campus buildings of UCLA Health.
Raymond Redheffer (1921-2005)
The Eye and Let There Be Light
Math Sciences Building 6th floor
This large tile piece of a pixelated eye, surmounted by a striking but enigmatic series of dots and dashes, was created in the 1970s by Professor Raymond Redheffer, a faculty member in the UCLA Mathematics Department for 55 years. Professor Redheffer had a long collaboration with designers Charles and Ray Eames. I can’t help wondering if the Eameses were involved in this piece. This is one of the artworks that had no label. I had to track down some emeritus profs who could explain what it was. After 50 years, it finally has a label. Can you decipher the code above the eye?
It’s Morse Code and translates to “Let There be Light.” I wonder how many students studying coding these days know Morse Code.
Meleko Mokgosi (1981-)
Head of a Woman III
Graphite pencil on wall, ca. 2011
8th floor elevator lobby, Broad Art Center
Born in Botswana, Meleko Mokgosi moved to the United States in 2003. He received his M.F.A. from UCLA in 2011. This work, a masterpiece of draftsmanship, was drawn by Mokgosi directly on a wall outside the departmental offices of the School of Art and Architecture while he was a student. It’s large, around 4’ x 3’, and just knocks your socks off. Mokgosi’s career took off – he’s a big deal now – so it’s very cool that we have this great early piece of his.
Mary Blair (1911-1978)
It’s a Small World
Terracotta tiles, 1966
Jules Stein Eye Institute, 1st floor
In 1966, as the Jules Stein Eye Institute was nearing completion, its founder and namesake was given a remarkable gift by his friend Walt Disney. Walt Disney engaged his longtime collaborator, Mary Blair, to produce for a pediatrics area a mural based on the famous Disneyland attraction, “It's a Small World,” that she had earlier designed. The mural has many fun details, including the great sunburst clock.
Frank Armitage (1924-2016)
Oil on canvas, 1973
UCLA Faculty Center, South Hallway
I found this fabulous painting, along with a similar one in monochromatic tones, in a storage room in the Neurobiology Department. It’s so 1970s! The artist was Frank Armitage. He was a painter and production illustrator for such classic Disney movies as Peter Pan (1953), Sleeping Beauty (1959), Mary Poppins (1964), and The Jungle Book (1967). His expertise in anatomical illustration led to his being hired by 20th Century Fox Studios to provide production illustration for the landmark science-fiction film, Fantastic Voyage (1966), in which a submarine crew is shrunk to microscopic size to repair the brain of an injured scientist. In the early 1970s, the artist was a medical illustrator at UCLA in the Anatomy Department (now Neurobiology). In 1977, he went back to Disney to work as an Imagineer.
Any final comments?
Yes, acknowledgments. First, I want to thank you, Janine, for getting me up to speed with JSTOR Forum. Thanks as well to JSTOR Forum’s Erin McCall, who was always responsive and helpful when I reached out to her.
Grateful thanks, too, to Michael Beck for saying yes to the project and for engaging me to do it. And thanks to Agnes Warren for meeting with me monthly for the duration of the project.
Gratitude also goes to my friend and USC colleague Ruth Wallach, creator of the website Public Art in Los Angeles. Ruth was a helpful thought partner throughout this project.
And huge thanks to Michael Heafey, friend and uber UCLA volunteer, who aided me in countless ways, from scouting the campus for art, to taking photos and helping with moves and installations.
And thank you Victoria for sharing this with us!