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Southern University Opens Doors to Art Collection

Southern University Opens Doors to Art Collection Baton Rouge campus celebrates 87th birthday with opening of new museum
By Scott Dyer

Southern University’s Baton Rouge campus celebrated its 87th birthday last month by opening a new museum that showcases an African and African American art collection estimated at $4 million to $5 million. The Southern University Museum of Art is the pet project of Southern University System President Leon Tarver.
Dr. Tarver says he began a personal collection of African art nearly 10 years ago, and gradually added to it during visits to South Africa on behalf of the university. Tarver says he came up with the idea of a campus museum after receiving a number of compliments on the art that he displayed in his office and the university reception center.
“I thought it was a shame that we could not make it available to a larger audience with a museum,” Tarver says.
To get the museum rolling, Tarver donated 150 works from his own collection.
To house the art, he arranged to renovate Harvey Hall, one of the school’s original buildings that had been vacant for 15 years.
The use of campus workers kept the cost of the yearlong renovation to about $225,000, says Larry McGhee, director of facility planning for the Southern System. McGhee, who supervised the project, says the brick building was still structurally sound, but had extensive rotting and decaying wood inside that was replaced. The renovation took about a year.
As construction progressed, news of the project spread, and Tarver says that he was approached by several people who donated African and African American art for the new museum.
Tarver recalled that one of the first considerable donations came from Dr. William Bertran, a former vice president at Tulane University who had amassed a large art collection while working in Central Africa for about five years.
“I remember he called me at home on Father’s Day, and said he’d like to donate $250,000 worth of art — and I almost fell off the telephone,” Tarver says.
In all, Bertran donated 144 pieces of African art to the museum.
Another major donation came from Dr. Brooks Cronin from nearby Sunshine, La. Cronin is an art collector who has made several donations to predominantly White Louisiana State University.
Cronin donated three sculptures by the late Frank Hayden, an internationally known African American sculptor who spent most of his life in Baton Rouge. Hayden joined the Southern University art faculty in 1961, becoming the university’s first Distinguished Professor in 1985.
Another notable piece is a sculpture that was created by an African bronze caster’s guild.
The piece was commissioned by a Nigerian tribal king for Dr. Flora Kaplan, who lived among his people for more than two years, Tarver says.
Kaplan, who heads the museum studies program at New York University, was approached about the fledgling museum by a Southern University alumnus who now lives in New Jersey.
“It (the sculpture) had been at special expositions like Macy’s in New York, and she (Kaplan) said that Jackie Kennedy once offered to purchase it, but she wanted it to be someplace like a university,” Tarver says.
Tarver noted that a Baton Rouge riverboat casino made a cash donation for the school to purchase the piece from Kaplan at a price Tarver declined to reveal.
“She (Kaplan) wasn’t interested in making money off the piece, but it had obviously cost her some money to have it shipped and insured and that kind of thing,” Tarver says. 
Tarver says one of the most remarkable achievements is that the museum actually owns all the works that are currently on display there.
The horseshoe-shaped museum features African American art on one side and African pieces on the other. In the middle is the building’s old stage that now serves as an indoor sculpture garden.
Works on display include six pieces by Howard Smith, the renowned primitive artist, along with works by Phoebe Beasley and Malaika Favorite.
One room showcases African tribal masks, while another spotlights a spectacular
18-foot-tall Mandingo sculpture of a human figure from a single piece of mahogany.  

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