When Andrew Kozlowski wanted his beginning printmaking students to examine the work of a famous 1700s Italian Baroque artist, he didn’t have to rely on a picture in a book or on the internet. Instead, the University of North Florida professor and his students took a short stroll on campus to an original Giovanni Battista Piranesi on display as part of the University’s permanent art collection. There, the students could carefully study the intricate details of Piranesi’s work and his technique. “When you get up close, you can see it’s not perfect,” Kozlowski said. “He has squiggly marks that he builds up bit-by-bit.”
Piranesi’s work is among the more than 450 pieces in the collection, which has become “a wonderful extension of the classroom,” said Dr. Debra Murphy, the inaugural chair of the Department of Art and Design. She said the catalyst for the collection’s initial growth spurt was a significant contribution in 2012 by Wells Fargo, when it was divesting its art collection. Over the past five years, Mussallem Galleries — a five-generation family business in Jacksonville — has generously donated at least 100 pieces of art valued at approximately $2 million.
The late Dr. Saul Eisen and his widow, Judy, have contributed significantly, including works by such luminaries as George Tooker, Yaacov Agam and Robert Rauschenberg. Many others have given to the collection, which is insured for just over $3 million. The eclectic nature of the permanent collection is obvious as you walk down the hall to Murphy’s office – where the offerings include watercolors as well as Japanese ceramics and prints donated by local community members Joan and Jerry Holland. The nearby secure room, which became a dedicated print work laboratory for students this year, is filled with donated treasures, such as a sketchbook page from Frida Kahlo of Mexico and a lithograph from Rauschenberg. Kozlowski likes that the collection is as varied as the taste and interests of those who contribute. “It’s the most perfect, wonderful collection of different styles, periods and methods,” he said.
Generous benefactors include gallery owner
Mussallem Galleries is a Northeast Florida legacy, which opened in 1897 when James Mussallem Sr.’s family began selling Oriental rugs. Unlike the previous generations, Mussallem and his brother began acquiring art. “We would actually have to hide what we bought because we really didn’t have a lot of money and we didn’t have a lot of education in art,” Mussallem said. “I just happened to like it.” But, over the years, experts have commented on his eye for art which is obvious when you walk through the stunning gallery on Philips Highway. The massive collection includes 4,000 paintings with works by masters such as Vincent Van Gogh and Rembrandt Van Rijn, as well as statues, vases and, of course, the beautiful rugs.
Mussallem, whose family has been in business for 121 years in Florida, has long been a major benefactor to Florida colleges and universities. “All the places that we have an allegiance to, I want to help them, especially any Florida school,” he said. He decided to start donating to UNF because two of his children – James Jr. and Marie – loved going to school there. Both went on the Department of Art and Design’s study-abroad program to Italy that was organized by Murphy. “It was a great experience,” said James Mussallem Jr., who works at the museum alongside his father. “I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Mussallem Sr. decided he wanted to help UNF take its art collection to a higher level to match the school’s tremendous growth. And there is a special allegiance to Murphy, whom he said he has known for more than 40 years. “She’s always had a passion like I have, so we just hit it off,” Mussallem said. “If it weren’t for Dr. Murphy being involved, we probably wouldn’t have the enthusiasm we do now to donate.” His decisions on what to donate to UNF are inspired by suggestions from professors, deans and others, whom he invites to share with him 50 pieces they love. The Mussallem family ultimately decides which pieces they will share, but this way, they know the art will be appreciated. Students from the University also visit about once a month, he said, most often to take a tour guided by his son, for which they write a report for extra credit. But Mussallem would like to see UNF students have an increased presence at the gallery. “I’m telling you, it would be so dynamic for them,” he said.
UNF’s collection available for students
Students get to take advantage of UNF’s permanent collection through their classwork. Jim Draper, who is curator of galleries at UNF, also teaches classes, during which he uses the collection. He took his figure-painting class to see the Kahlo sketchbook page in the dedicated print work laboratory near Murphy’s office. “They never thought they’d be able to see an original Frida Kahlo up close,” said Draper, who himself is a renowned artist. “They were just mesmerized, just floored by the fact they had the ability to see that.”
Gallery assistant Laura Schwenn and Draper worked over the summer to convert a storage space into a place for students to be able to examine the collection’s works on paper. They spent last summer dismantling the works that were in a compromised condition, such as having mold on them or being in fragile frames. They then got them into archival condition, including putting a proper backing on them and placing them in clear plastic sleeves, then filing them in a bank of drawers. Now faculty and students can make an appointment to go into the room, pull some pieces from the drawers and examine them. Schwenn, an art major who graduated from UNF in 2017, is proud of how the laboratory turned out. “One person said it was magical and it is,” she said. “For us to have that easy access to those works is very gratifying.”
Aspirations for the future
Pieces of the collection are often displayed on campus for free in the Gallery of Art and the Lufrano Intercultural Gallery. Those who have worked with the artwork dream of a museum on campus one day, which could serve as the home for the full permanent collection — a place accessible to the public and the campus community. “I don’t think that we’ve fully embraced exactly what we’ve got, so I know the community doesn’t,” Draper said. “We haven’t really celebrated it beyond the perimeter.” Kozlowski, who joined UNF in the fall of 2017 and worked at a museum for years after he finished his undergraduate studies, said students could see how exhibitions are put together and how a collection is managed. “It was the best art education someone could ask for,” he said.
Exhibitions of the UNF permanent collection may be limited due to space at the moment, but they are always met with great enthusiasm from students, faculty, staff and members of the community. A recent special exhibit from the permanent collection initially organized for UNF’s new president was such a success that it remained on display through the summer. Schwenn said, with much of their art included, UNF invited the Mussallem family to see the exhibit beautifully displayed in the UNF Gallery of Art, and James Mussallem Sr. had a story and a memory for every single piece. “They were so sincerely thrilled and touched to see their works like that,” she said of the family. “It was one of those full circle moments for us.”
An upcoming exhibit of art from the permanent collection — “A Grand and Generous Gift: The Saul and Judy Eisen Collection” — honors the Eisens’ significant contributions and will run Jan. 8 through Feb. 14.