The Care and Feeding of an Art Collection

Helen del Guidice’s curation of the Miller Art Museum

You may never look at an art collection in the same way again if you talk with Helen del Guidice, curator of the Miller Art Museum in Sturgeon Bay.

“Most people don’t have any idea what having a collection means,” del Guidice said. “Collections are living, breathing creatures, things are always happening to them, the world changes around them, their voice, their emotions – paintings possess all those things.”

The museum’s current show, Newfangled, includes 34 works from the museum’s permanent collection that illustrate the modern art period.

Gerhard CF Miller, who founded the museum with his wife, Ruth, got the collection started by donating a painting titled “Pioneer Farm” in 1975.

“He gifted it to the institution and encouraged others to donate artworks to benefit the public,” said del Guidice. “Funds were eventually pooled in various ways for purchasing some of the artworks, but bequests and gifts have been the driving force of the collection. The goal from the beginning, as it is today, was to create a collection for public education and secure the legacy of artists in Door County and greater Wisconsin.”

Several works note they are a gift from Virginia and Thomas Maher. In 2001, the avid art collectors donated 52 paintings and artist books by Wisconsin artists. 

The museum created a small booklet for the donation, said Virginia Maher, and the gift had added 20 new artists to the Miller’s collection.

“It is a pleasure to donate to an institution when you are supporting their mission,” Virginia said, who has written several books about art and taught at the Peninsula School of Art.

Art museums typically grow their collections over time through acquisitions and gifts – the Miller has 1,515 pieces of art, almost all of it two-dimensional because it doesn’t have storage for 3D pieces. 

The current show has several recent acquisitions.

“In 2022 we acquired a total of 18 artworks with large gifts from James Ingwersen and Suzanne Rose,” del Guidice said. “In 2023, we acquired 25 artworks including a collection of nine works on paper from the Kohler Foundation by artist Gustavo Fares, who is new to the collection, and Brandon Bauer, who is also new to the collection.”

del Guidice estimates that she shows 100 to 200 works from the collection each year through exhibitions, educational programming or outreach.

Like any living organism, the collection takes some care and feeding. During the COVID-19 shutdown of 2020, the museum hired a professional art photographer to photograph every single piece in its collection.

Helen del Guidice uses a light to identify any damages and also to reveal signatures on the art that may be difficult to find. Photos by Rachel Lukas.

“Through that process we were able to true-up info that maybe hadn’t been marked down, or was recorded incorrectly, such as whether a painting was oil or watercolor, or its exact dimensions,” said del Guidice.

She is also going through the entire collection to evaluate each work.

“I do take action to preserve and stabilize as I interact with the artworks,” she said. 

Some actions require conservators – professionals who analyze and restore different art objects and artifacts. Del Guidice does not take those actions, but she does reframe, or open a frame to remove dust, loose debris or non-archival materials, such as old mats that may cause discoloration.

“Some damage, unfortunately, can not be undone, particularly to works in watercolor, where any intervention threatens to displace the medium,” she said.

Restoration and conservation are specialized sciences, she said, and larger museums – the Art Institute of Chicago or the Metropolitan Museum of Art – have access to conservation labs and highly trained restoration specialists, she added. 

“For smaller museums, it can be quite cost prohibitive,” she said.

Del Guidice is also developing detailed and cross-referenced cataloging so it will be possible to quickly locate any item in the collection. 

Del Guidice came to Sturgeon Bay and the Miller from the Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture in New Orleans, where she curated a collection of more than 30,000 Mardi Gras costumes.

“She has a demanding job,” said Cheryl Stidwell Parker, a Miller Museum board member. “People may not be aware of all the intricacies of curatorial duties and care and management of this growing body of work.”

That includes refining the collection’s data and organizing everything from condition reports to interpretation and care of art work – as well as juggling the development and implementation of excellent exhibits.

Stidwell Parker said del Guidice has made the collection “a living thing, which engages the public in new and interesting ways.”

Landscapes comprise just under half of the works, and the collection includes surrealism, prints, photography and contemporary mixed media. This year, del Guidice used the mezzanine display area “to activate relationships with artists who are represented in our collection and whom we continue to support, such as Lee Mothes and Joseph Friebert. It is a way to keep our collection and collection-artist relationships relevant.”

Acquisitions are made carefully through a committee of museum supporters who have experience in the arts.

“This committee ensures that no one person can completely change the direction of the collecting practices or begin any collecting practices deemed unethical,” she said.

The museum has some gaps that it would like to fill in its collection, she said, including work by  traditionally underrepresented groups, and particular artists from Native American, Latino, African American and LGBTQIA populations.

Equalizing gender gaps is another point of focus, “but we do continue to value acquisitions of legacy artists and aim to fill gaps for artists already present in the collection,” she said.

As curator, she takes an active role in arranging works to stimulate thought and also to provide mental relief. In 2022, for example, the museum exhibited Landscapes of Absence by Brandon Bauer, images of locations that endured violence. Del Guidice paired that exhibit with another on the mezzanine that showed more traditional landscapes with no signs of human activity.

“The landscapes from the collection offered the viewer a place of safety and relief,” she said.

Occasionally the museum gets requests from people who ask to see particular works.

“We once had a grand-niece of Phil Austin, who had never met him but discovered there was an artist in the family whose work was in a museum,” she said. “She traveled from Ohio to see his artworks in a private viewing. On occasion, if I see an artist in the community working in a particular way that resonates with an artist in our collection, I invite them to make a private viewing appointment to look at the work I think would be valuable for them to see.”