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Brigham Young University
"Kelp" is just one of Mahonri M. Young's works in BYU's collection.

PROVO — It began, as so many great things do, with a simple gesture of goodwill.

In 1909, J. William Knight, the son of early BYU supporter Jesse Knight, had a painting by John Hafen of an old sycamore tree that he wanted to donate to the school.

It was a time of growth for BYU; the Maeser Building was under construction, and the school was just beginning to expand to the upper campus. John Hafen was one of the leading artists in Utah at the time. He'd been to Paris to study art and was well recognized and appreciated, so school officials thought perhaps it could be part of a fine art collection.

Little did they know!

But from that modest beginning a great tradition of collecting and appreciating art developed at the school.

In honor of that tradition, BYU's Museum of Art has put together an exhibition featuring works from its extensive collection, which will run through Sept. 25.

It's a very exciting show, says Paul Anderson, curator of Southwest American art at the museum and one of five curators who worked on the show. "It gives us a chance to show a lot of things that have not been part of other exhibitions."

The works represent all genres and periods in the BYU collection. The other curators who helped put the show together are Marian Wardle, curator of American art; Diana Turnbow, curator of photography; Jeff Lambson, curator of contemporary art; and Dawn Pheysey, curator of religious art.

The museum collection now numbers more than 17,000 pieces, so it was not necessarily an easy task to limit it to one exhibition. Curators chose many of the pieces that are both significant and represent a century of collecting.

The Hafen painting may have started it all, but there wasn't much activity until the 1930s, Anderson explains. In the early '30s, the school acquired a few works, but a huge milestone occurred in 1937, when Harold R. Clark went to California and met Maynard Dixon.

"He went with the idea of buying a painting or two," Anderson says. "But after he got there and met Dixon and became so impressed with him, he ended up buying 85 of Dixon's paintings — for $3,700, which was quite a bit in those days."

Clark gave the paintings to BYU, which overnight became the chief repository of Dixon's work. "We now have about 100 Dixon paintings, and we still have the largest Dixon collection of any museum. Dixon was forgotten for a time, but he's very hot again now," Anderson says.

Most of the Dixon paintings are of Southwest landscapes, but there are a few other subjects. One in the show is of an "Empty House" painted while Dixon lived in Utah.

When B.F. Larsen became head of the art department at the school, he became an active collector, particularly of early Utah painters such as J.T. Harwood, Edwin Evans and Minerva Teichert.

"There was a time when Minerva Teichert's children were going to school here, and she sent paintings in lieu of tuition, so we were very lucky," Anderson says. "A lot of the paintings we have, we couldn't afford to buy today."

Throughout the '30s, '40s and '50s, the school relied mostly on donations and gifts. One of those gifts came from the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was a large painting of "Shoshone Falls" painted by Henry L.A. Culmer. "When we got to looking at it, we found it was in very bad condition, but we had it and the frame cleaned and restored, and it's spectacular," Anderson says.

The school's biggest windfall came in 1959 and is known as the Young-Weir collection. Mahonri Young is probably Utah's most famous artist ever, Anderson says. After his first wife died, he married the daughter of J. Alden Weir, one of the famous American impressionists of his day and part of a distinguished family of artists and collectors.

"They were at the hub of the progressive movement in America," says Anderson. When his wife died, Mahonri Young inherited her father's and grandfather's works and collections. And when Mahonri Young died, his son offered it all to BYU.

There were 10,000 pieces in all, a lot of them paper sketches and plasters for his sculpture, but also some very significant pieces of art.

The Weir collection included such things as Japanese woodblock prints, some Rembrandt etchings and some Albrecht Durer etchings.

"You can just imagine how wonderful these are for teaching purposes," Anderson says. "We really got some good things in that collection."

Once again, the school "gained a big, distinguished art collection through a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And that has happened for us time after time — things that on a different day might not have happened," he says.

Over the years, there have been gifts of Russian works, British portraits, Japanese ivories. In the 1970s, the art department bought 10 paintings of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol. "That might seem like a stretch for the time, but now they are icons. Luckily, we bought them when they were affordable."

The C.C.A. Christensen family gave his series of panoramic Mormon history paintings to the school. Teichert's 44 illustrations of the Book of Mormon came to BYU. There were "wonderful American landscapes from the Hudson River School." There were paintings by Dutch and British masters.

For a long time, the collection was stored in the Fine Arts Building, but university officials "started to realize that they had a collection of real value, and it needed to be safeguarded," Anderson says.

Part of that came through an embarrassing find that some of the pieces have been lost and stolen. A lot of pieces were hung in offices around the campus, and when people retired, they just took them away. But some were actually stolen. Many of the works were later recovered, he says, but BYU officials realized "this was not a minor asset, and we needed a first-rate facility to care for it. James Mason led the charge to raise money and build a museum."

The Museum of Art was completed in 1993 and is now considered "one of the best facilities at any university in America."

Collecting has continued. Additions include photographs by Dorothea Lange and large religious paintings by Scandinavian artist Carl Bloch. The exhibition shows off some of the newest acquisitions, including some bronzes by Jean Leon Gerome, a couple of Norman Rockwells and a painting by Frances D. Millet.

One of the more remarkable recent gifts came when a woman called to say, "Would you like a Rembrandt?" It turned out she had a painting that she had purchased for a friend some time ago, but the friend never claimed it. It had been boxed up under her bed.

"Of course, Rembrandt is a tricky thing," Anderson says. There are a lot of claims, and provenance is often hard to prove. This one is a painting of Christ and might possibly be one of a series of sketches done for a larger work. "We've had experts from Philadelphia, Detroit and the Louvre come and look. It's going to be part of a show at the Louvre, so we'll see what everyone has to say, but it's looking better all the time," Anderson says.

There's a lot to see in this exhibition, he says. It offers a look at both the history of art and the history of collecting in the state; it lets people see things that have never before been shown; it helps people understand what an important resource the museum offers not only to the school but to the community and world at large.

Above all, Anderson says, it lets art touch your life. "I really believe that no matter what you are studying, what you are doing, your life is richer if you come in contact with art. It adds a dimension to our lives like nothing else — to think that you can look at something that was touched by some of the most creative, brilliant people in history, and that it still speaks long after they have gone. They had things to say that can touch our hearts still."

If you go …

What: The First 100 Years: Collecting Art at BYU

Where: BYU Museum of Art, Provo

When: Through Sept. 25, 2010; Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Thursdays, 6-9 p.m.; Saturdays, noon-5 p.m.; closed Sunday

How much: Free

Phone: 801-422-8287

Web: moa.byu.edu

e-mail: carma@desnews.com