Missing painting at SMU won’t keep art off campuses

Despite the best efforts of mysterious thieves, art on university campuses remains an important part of the academic experience.

Students work under art at Dal's Killam library.

Between two paintings in the Sobey building at Saint Mary's University there's a blank wall with a tiny, screw-sized hole in it.

This isn't a maintenance oversight in need of new plaster. It's the spot where, until about a month ago, Leroy Zwicker's Still Life with Tulips used to hang.

The painting had been part of the permanent collection at the Saint Mary's art gallery since 1967.

But on Oct. 26, someone noticed the tranquil oil painting wasn't there. Despite being screwed into the hallway wall, someone had walked away with it.

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The china collection at the King's.

The Saint Mary's University Art Gallery, which owns the painting, put up posters and contacted security. Gallery workers still hope that the painting might be recovered, but they haven't heard anything yet.

Zwicker's painting is just one of hundreds of artworks that cover the Saint Mary's campus - and the campuses of most other major universities. It's not the first to disappear. Just this spring, a piece went missing from Dalhousie University, but was later recovered.

Robin Metcalfe, curator of the Saint Mary's art gallery, admits theft happens, but says it's actually quite infrequent. And he doesn't think people take them for financial gain, although he wouldn't estimate the value of the missing Zwicker painting.

The threat isn't enough to deter the gallery from placing works in public spaces.

"Art should be part of our lives," he says. "Art can increase the quality of an education. It can increase the quality of a student's academic life."

Where the art comes from

Art on university campuses mainly comes from donations to the university. At Saint Mary's and Dalhousie, art galleries maintain the collections - each of which currently holds about 1,400 pieces.

Those pieces are mainly stored away, tucked safely into climate-controlled vaults to protect against deterioration and theft.
"When people donate work, we are custodians of it for the people of Canada in perpetuity," says Peter Dykhuis, director and curator of the Dalhousie art gallery. "So we can't just throw it into a damp basement somewhere."

Dykhuis says that's also why a university's art gallery has the responsibility to display works of art in buildings other than the gallery.

"The value of the work is first and foremost its cultural and historical value," he says. "But it's usually done by a person. And if it's done by a person, it's done for a purpose. It's made to be seen."

Hanging art outside of the gallery is a complex process.

Dalhousie faculty can sign out certain pieces to be placed in offices and libraries across campus. Currently there are 231 pieces on loan from the permanent collection, each of which has been handled by Michele Gallant.

Gallant is the registrar at the Dalhousie Art Gallery. She oversees the placement of works on campus, ensures that the location is suitable. She charges a "rental fee" for her services - which is the gallery's way of making sure the people signing out pieces are serious about keeping them safe.

Gallant is happy to spend the time it takes to place work on campus.

"We have an obligation to be an active participant in campus life," she says. "And people are delighted when they get their artwork."

The sign-out system is similar at Saint Mary's, but its gallery doesn't require a fee. It's more for inventory purposes than holding anyone responsible for disappearances.

While the missing Zwicker painting had gone through this process before it was hung, not all works on campus have.

Saint Mary's is still trying to get its collection catalogued and appraised more fully. The gallery brought in a new collections co-ordintor two years ago, but finding works lent out before the art gallery was established - or before it kept such meticulous records - can be a long process.

That means that although the art gallery requires only trained gallery staff handle the works on campus, not every piece on campus has a label saying where it came from.

Out of the public eye

Just because a piece goes up, doesn't mean it won't one day be taken down.

"It's like the Antiques Roadshow sometimes," says Dykhuis. "If you find something of value, you have to insure it or it may have to be taken out of the public eye."

The University of King's College strives to display valuable work.

When the King's library was built 20 years ago, part of its mandate was to display the university's collections of art and artifacts. It was even given a Heritage Canada grant to do so.

But outside of the library's secure glass cases, some of the university's best paintings are stuck in the basement archives. The others on display are reproductions.

"Why?" asks Drake Petersen, head librarian and archivist at King's. "Because there's a whole list of art that was stolen off the walls of Prince Hall. At least a dozen items over the years."

The show must go on

Like the curators at Dalhousie and Saint Mary's, Petersen thinks it's important to keep a university's collection in public view as much as possible, even if that means showing reproductions.

"It's a recognition of what we were and what we are," he says. "It's been part of the visual landscape of all the students who have attended King's."

Petersen plans to exhibit the original works that hung in the dining hall - a collection of past presidents - in the library next year.

And despite the bare wall in the Sobey building, the Saint Mary's University art gallery is still positive about having art on campus.

In fact, it's looking to collaborate with new buildings to enhance the artistic life of Saint Mary's students.

"We're looking to place exciting contemporary works in the new Atrium building," says Metcalfe. "And maybe a big public outdoor work too. This is an exciting time for art at Saint Mary's."


Comments on this story are now closed

So, is the painting still missing? Never thought that SMU has such paintings. Is it really that worthy? I mean with all the effort and cost spent? sell my paintings

Posted by sell my paintings | Dec 4, 2021

I'm surprised you didn't mention the bust that went missing from the dal sculpture garden earlier this fall, only to be 'anonymously' returned by the thieves lawyer a week or two later.

Posted by xx | Nov 21, 2021