Changes in store for permanent art exhibit

By Claire Fisher | 5/31/15 11:23pm

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GVL/Spencer Miller The Mathias Alten exhibit is displayed in the George and Barbara Gordon Gallery on GVSU's Devos Campus. GVSU has the largest public collection of Alten's work with over 70 of his paintings permanently on display.

From floral paintings for a living room to landscape murals for a beer garden, Mathias J. Alten contributed a greeat deal to the Grand Rapids art scene in the early 20th century. Alten’s work is on display in a permanent exhibit on Grand Valley State University’s Pew Campus.

In order to keep the exhibit fresh, Henry Matthews, director of galleries and collections said art gallery staff plan to reorganize the gallery space, as well as publish a coffee table book highlighting Alten’s works in summer 2016.

The collection of 120 of Alten’s pieces are held in the George and Barbara Gordon Gallery located in the DeVos Center. Matthews said the gallery will be shut down during summer 2016 to reorganize and rearrange the exhibition to show the artwork in a new light for visitors.

“We haven’t changed the gallery in several years,” Matthews said. “We add new paintings when we get gifts and when we can. But after a while you can only reshuffle so much. So we’re going to completely shut down the gallery for about a month; we will take all the paintings down, repaint the space and completely reorganize it with new themes.”

In addition to the reorganizing the exhibit, Matthews said the gallery will include new paintings that have not been on display yet.

“There are a number of new gifts that are in storage and we’re waiting until next summer to include these new works of art.” Matthews said. “We’re hoping to shed new light on the exhibition as we rearrange it.”

The coffee table book of Alten’s work will also be published in summer 2016 said David Newell, curator of exhibitions. The book will include 60 of Alten’s pieces along with essays discussing Alten and his significance.

“We’ve gone through and selected the very best of his paintings to really show Alten at the peak of his technique and style,” Newell said. “We’re having scholars do research on him and write essays talking about the collection and its significance to the university. It’s a way of celebrating the wonderful collection that we have.”

Although Alten lived in Grand Rapids, he was born in Germany and spent time around Europe getting inspiration and learning to paint. Alten brought this influence back with him to Grand Rapids.

“People in Grand Rapids have houses with ballrooms in the basement that Alten painted,” Newell said. “There were beer gardens in Grand Rapids back at that time. Because Alten was from Germany, he was able to paint very European landscapes on the walls to evoke that the beer gardens were in other locations.”

Because Alten’s paintings often depict scenes of everyday life, his travels to other countries create separate themes in his work, Matthews explained. These themes may be one of the guiding influences for the upcoming gallery reorganization.

“We are probably going to rearrange it by theme,” Matthews said. “The theme could be Alten’s period in Spain, or his period in the Netherlands, or his farm period in Michigan. As the collection grows, we add depth to each of those categories and I think it’s time to take it all down and rearrange it so we can show some of that depth.”

Newell said that he hopes for the changes in the exhibit and the coffee table book to bring a spotlight to Alten’s paintings.

“My hopes for the reorganization is that the awareness of his work continues to expand,” Newell said. “I’ve traveled around the country. I’ve seen a lot of art in my career, and this really is high-quality, American art. Alten was really strong in the impressionist school and a very strong regionalist painter, but he’s kind of a secret at the same time.”

Matthews said that he encourages students to go down and see the gallery before the summer 2016 changes to the exhibition to get the most out of the collection.

The Mathias J. Alten exhibit is open Fridays and Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and is free to everyone.

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