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Loyola University Museum of Art

Wed, Dec 12, 2012

It’s one-of-a-kind holiday crèche exhibit and unique mission of the spiritual in art

The holidays are here, and every family across Chicagoland celebrates in their own unique way, according to their family’s age-old traditions and cultures. In order to unite the many differing ethnicities under the umbrella of holiday cheer, the Loyola University Museum of Art unveils its annual holiday exhibit for the fourth year in a row: Art and Faith of the Crèche.

Running until January 15, the James and Emilia Govan Crèche Collection, assembled over a 30-year-period, comprises more than 500 crèches, or nativity scenes, from around the world. The collection includes crèches from more than 100 countries and cultures, including works by Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Taoist artists. This year, it will include more than 50 crèches new to the exhibition, as well as beloved crèches from past years.

The Loyola University Museum of Art, located at 820 N. Michigan Avenue

“Here’s the thing about the Crèche exhibition… it is a Christian story. Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus… the birth of the Messhiah. But when you start looking at it from the perspective of these various cultures from around the world, you start to see it in a very different way,” said Pam Ambrose, LUMA’s director of cultural affairs. “You start to see it as a family story and it’s the family story of adversity: Mary and Joseph on their way to an inn and then the joy of the birth of a child. And it’s interpreted [by each individual culture’s] architecture, clothing, the facial features, the animals… Instead of camels, you may have reindeer from Alaska or elephants [from Africa]. It is just amazing.”

The range of expressions is diverse – from an intricate woodcarving from Lithuania to a crèche from Uganda made almost entirely of banana leaves to a Kyrgyzstani scene depicting Mary and Joseph wearing marmot fur hats in a yurt.

The crèche exhibit will also accompany a first-year companion exhibition, The Hanukkah Lamp: Modernist Style and the Jewish Experience, which features a selection of more than 70 Hanukkah lamps from the Aaron Ha ’Tell Collection, Wilmette.

“People who come to see [Art and Faith of the Crèche] really just love it. And if you happen to be Scottish, Irish, Russian, Hungarian or maybe Palestinian, you can go and find your country,” Ambrose said. “And it is the Christmas season and we are a Catholic Jesuit University, so it’s nice to do something that talks about the Catholic faith.”

This exhibit of exquisite Nativity scenes is not only an excellent opener to the holiday season, but it also perfectly fits within the unique mission of LUMA: to reflect the University’s Jesuit identity and help people of all creeds explore their faith and spiritual quest. The museum also works to explore, promote and understand art and artistic expression that illuminates the enduring spiritual questions of all cultures and societies.

A Szopki crèche from Poland

This goal of enlightening society on the mystery of secular works of art began just seven years ago in October 2005 when Loyola’s President, the Rev. Michael Garanzini, recognized a need for such a venue. “The idea behind opening the Loyola Museum of Art actually started [when Father Garanzini] saw that we had a very important and rare collection of medieval and Renaissance art,” Ambrose said.

That collection that Ambrose is referring to is the Martin D’Arcy Collection – which has since expanded dramatically – displaying medieval, Renaissance and Baroque works of art. It is the finest collection of its kind in the Midwest.

“Up until the museum, the Martin D’Arcy Collection was housed at the Lake Shore campus in a very small space in Cudahy Library, so there wasn’t a great deal of room to show it. Father Garanzini thought it would be a brilliant idea to move it down to Water Tower Campus in what is a prime location [off of Michigan Avenue] as a sort of anchor in that we are a very public face of the University,” Ambrose said.
LUMA is located on the Magnificent Mile at 820 N. Michigan Avenue, housed on four floors of the 1926 Gothic Revival building across from the historic Water Tower Park.

Crèche from Mexico

“We came up with the idea of a mission that would address the nature of the collection, which is essentially the Christian faith being represented in the medieval and Renassance era, but also embracing other faiths and cultures. So we settled on the mission of the exploration of the spiritual in art of all faiths and all cultures,” Ambrose said.

For the past seven years, LUMA has demonstrated its mission with beautiful and intricate exhibitions that deeply reach into the thoughts of its visitors.

In addition to the Martin D’Arcy permanent exhibit, the LUMA Collection is the other continuuing exhibit in the museum. The collection comprises over 290 Neolithic idols, as well as prints and photographs by artists such as Marc Chagall, Anish Kapoor and Nat Finkelstein. This collection also includes contemporary crèches, an incremental five-year gift from the collection of James and Emilia Govan.
In addition to its permanent exhibitions, LUMA mounts several major exhibitions each year in its temporary galleries. Some of the most prominent current and upcoming exhibitions include:

* Preserving the Saints (through Winter 2013) – In 2010, two 18th-century Russian icons in LUMA’s collection needed conservation. This installation celebrates their return. Accompanying didactic panels recount their treatment and the conservators’ interesting discoveries about their creation and long histories.

* Closer by the Minute (online exhibition, Through December 2012) – David and Hi-Jin Hodge use digital technology to show the depth and power of exploring a subject in a careful, methodical way in this observation of time. The works in this online exhibition address issues of interpersonal, metaphysical and societal interest.

* Archie Rand: Making Belief – True Adventures with Word and Image (March 2 – June 2, 2013) – New York artist Archie Rand has been exploring Judaic themes for over 30 years. In his masterwork, The 613, he has created what may be among the largest free-standing paintings in the world – comprising 613 individual paintings that depict the commandments from the Torah.

* Andra Samelson: Cosmologies (July 20 – October 27 2013) – Using both celestial and Buddhist imagery in her work, Andra Samelson explores the inseparability of the physical and spiritual aspects of the universe.

* All that Lies Beyond Us (July 20 – October 27 2013) – “The absolute acknowledgment of all that lies beyond us – the glory that fills heaven and earth.” This definition of worship by author Evelyn Underhill is what artst Teresa Albor references in this installation.

* Ten Thousand Ripples (July 20 – October 27 2013) – The Ten Thousand Ripples project is a partnership between Chicago-based artist Indira Johnson, Changing Worlds, LUMA and other cultural and educational organizations across the city and near suburbs. The project highlights the power of the arts to transform place, space and its use and meaning within 10 communities in the Chicago area.

Crèche from Hungary

LUMA wants Chicago to understand that although their roots stem from the Jesuit Catholic faith, they have worked very hard to ensure that people of all cultures and faiths find something they can connect with inside the museum. “A Jesuit education is all about having a greater experience than what you know coming into school and Jesuits are also very expansive in their thinking,” Ambrose said. “If you look back over the last seven years, you’ll see that we did a major exhibition about the teachings of the Dalai Lama, we did a large exhibition on Ethiopian painting and [another] exhibition that explored landscape painting and transcendental philosophy from the late 1800s. The LUMA mission reaffirms what the University does [and] what Chicago is all about, this great diversity of cultures.”

Religion, per se, is not always the central focus of an exhibition at LUMA; officials emphasize that you don’t have to be a religious person to benefit from the lessons that their exhibitions have to teach. “Many times, when people hear this idea of spirituality and art, they immediately think of religion… but we look to explore the idea of [not only religion, but] spirituality. What is the transformative experience a piece of art gives us when we look at it? How do artists deal with their own spiritual concerns? How do they perhaps interpret through their art the great and immediate questions that all human beings have [regarding] the purpose of life, the nature of human beings and these enduring questions of life? That’s what we’re really getting at,” Ambrose explained.

And with the very vast mission statement, LUMA also explores themes of social justice and social consciousness. “This is a Jesuit university that instills in their students an understanding that they need to contribute to society through community service and social welfare programs. That’s all part of the Jesuit education and we also reflect that in the museum,” Ambrose said.

While LUMA’s exhibits oftentimes do address particular concerns and needs of society, one element is always present. “If you walk in the door, you will see something that is going to cause you to think. [For example], with the current exhibition Sacred Geometry, [you’re going to ask], ‘Why is there a stained glass window depicting the Virgin Mary [next to] and a very modernist fluorescent glass tubework?’ So it doesn’t hit you over the head and you won’t say ‘Ah ha! Religion! Art! Now I get it!’ But we actually pride ourselves on providing our visitors with a very contemplative environment,” Ambrose said.

She also explained that the visitor experience is especially intimate compared to larger art museums. “You will never find audio tours here. We thought about it and our curators, along with myself, rejected it. We really believe people should look at the art, try to draw as many conclusions or thoughts on what they’re seeing by themselves, and then read the signage. We want to create a contemplative experience here and, of course, our museum’s small enough to do that,” Ambrose explained.

LUMA takes special care with visitor engagement and has gone a step farther with lively educational and outreach programs, including those for both youth and adults. The Push Pin Gallery is one of the most unique exhibition areas, because it promotes youth artistic expression by allowing children to display their own artwork on the walls of an actual museum.

“As part of the Push Pin Gallery, we have a reception for the kids and their families and friends. The kids get [so excited] and it’s very cute and they love having their artwork hung in a museum. There are a lot of artists out there who would kill to have their artwork hang in a museum,” said Ann Meehan, LUMA’s curator of education.

The museum also has a number of adult educational programs, including lecture series that complement traveling exhibitions and the permanent exhibits. For a full list of upcoming lectures and events, visit www.luc.edu/luma/events.

“Lunch at LUMA,” for example, is one such event designed for seniors to not only learn about the museum through a tour, but socialize with other participants during a catered lunch and lecture.

Meehan is excited looking into 2013, because LUMA will be unveiling several new educational programs. Working with the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness of Loyola’s School of Education, LUMA will work to integrate art into the curriculum of two schools that have very little art infused into their programs. “[It’s about] getting students to look at art and ask questions and develop critical thinking skills,” said Meehan.

Another youth-based educational program coming up in 2013 offers a school multiple visits, bring them to the museum three times throughout the course of the school year; they receive a tour followed by an art project related to what they saw. “It’s great because the students get so comfortable with the museum, because museums can be really intimidating. The projects last [about an hour] and it’s really cute to see how proud they are of their art,” Meehan said.

Lastly, LUMA will introduce a program especially designed to help individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Called “Illumination,” it has been designed for people with memory loss and their care partners. “Studies have shown that keeping the mind active helps stave off the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. So we’re working with Northwestern and we have specially designed tours for this group,” Meehan explained.
LUMA hopes to continue growing its artistically-inclined family by encouraging visitors to become full-fledged members. “For as little as $75 a year for the individual membership, you get free admision, free tickets for events, invitations to lectures, discounts in the gift shop and even discounts on Loyola’s continuum classes, which is a really great opportunity if you want to further your education without having to fully enroll as a student,” explained Ann Fruland, LUMA’s development and membership coordinator.

Family memberships are also available, starting at $125, which not only offer all the same perks as an individual membership, but also enters the family into the North American Reciprocal Membership (NARM) Program, which allows you free admission to museums all over North America, primarily in the United States.

LUMA not only relies on its members for support, but the work of dedicated volunteers helps the museum immensely. Ambrose said that volunteers often help by sitting at the membership desk and explaining to visitors the benefits of becoming a part of LUMA. They also have people who help by working in the gift shop.

Perhaps the most valuable volunteer opportunity is LUMA’s docent program. “[To become a docent, you must] go to docent training, but it is in fact an art history education. So if you are interested, especially in medieval and Renaissance art, as well as the contemporry exhibitions, we teach you how to give guided tours,” Ambrose said. The training lasts about six months and what’s more is that it doesn’t cost a thing to acquire this rare artistic knowledge. And the time commitment is very relaxed, with docents only being required to give two tours a month.

When asked what it is about LUMA that entices people to not only visit the museum, volunteer, or go the extra mile and become a member, Fruland said, “I think no matter what your faith is, LUMA is a place where you can come and reflect on life’s greater issues and mysteries. And I think a lot of people do come here as a refuge. We do find a lot of our members, because they do have the free [admission], stop by on their lunch break for a half an hour of peace away from the hustle and bustle of their day. And I think that this spirituality and kind of reconnecting with what’s most important in life is something that people really value.”

Written by Brittany Langmeyer, StreetWise Staff

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