This really is a story about Omaha, art and the Joslyn Museum, Just hold tight and let me get there…
About 7-8 years ago, I was walking through and HEB market in Austin, Texas wearing a Royals hat. It was a quick visit, so I chose a quick route with a quicker exit plan. As I walked past the rows of checkout counters, a twentysomething guy was walking towards me. Even from a distance, he locked in on me. I noticed, thought it was weird as I was unremarkably dressed and felt normal anyway. He walked towards each other and his stare started to build on my psyche. We finally crossed paths. I looked him in the eyes and slightly disgruntled, asked him what was up. He couldn’t help but chuckle, and blurted out, ‘I’ve never seen anybody wear a Kansas City Royals hat before’.
I get that. The Midwest is easy to laugh at. Omaha is easy to laugh at. Laughter is a common reaction when talking about Kansas City. (There’s nothing worse to a Kansas Citian than hearing a person dismissively add, ‘Kansas?’ when you’re talking about KC)
The internet is probably the worst place to read about trends and goings on, but… If you do give faith to anything you read on the internet promoting the next hot city, well, even Des Moines is one of the next big things. And it actually has a cool vibe. Kansas City has been populating these lists for years now, hoping to become, um, the next Austin?
Which brings me to Omaha. Like every other city in America, signs of growth are everywhere. There are plenty of trendy little restaurants, Alamo Drafthouses, and neat little districts for urban millenials to explore and open their own (artisan) (handmade) (locally sourced) (unique) store/bakery/restaurant/haberdashery/cheesemongery/brewery/etc that is actually more than that, it’s an experience. During my visit, I joked with friends this was the last city without electric scooters. Omaha has since ruined that observation.
I recently made a trip to Omaha. I did see more than the zoo and the bottom of a few pints at a bar surrounded by frat kids. Despite lots of restaurants and coffee shops holding inexplicably weird and ultra specific hours, the city was an enjoyable place to visit. It reminded me of a Kansas City just before its own growth spurt and localized revitalization over the past decade.
The Joslyn Art Museum
In the middle of it all is the Joslyn Art Museum. A nice collection of art housed in an amazing Art Deco building out of Georgia Marble. The marble is almost hypnotic, and easily one of the most visually impressive buildings in Omaha. The admission is free, which is always one of the best things a museum can do for itself and its community.
The artwork inside is quietly effective survey of art from Europe, the world, and a strong emphasis on native art in the Americas. A great collection of medieval art is followed up by a tremendous array of Renaissance and Baroque art. Titian, Rembrandt, El Greco, Delacroix and Courbet all line the walls. The Joslyn opened in 1931 by Sarah Joslyn to honor her husband, then the richest man in Nebraska. She took their love of art and combined her collection with other artistic donations. The museum even includes a concert hall inside.
As an Overeducated, Nose in the Air Art School Graduate™, the collection went to a wild and interesting place with its art collected from the end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th Century. In place of the regular, rote, and bloated rotation of second string Monets, Renoirs, and milquetoast Impressionist hangers on, the Joslyn featured something else. An entire, fairly comprehensive section of academic salon paintings from France and Europe!
A Quick Art History Detour
And now, a little art history tangent. Back before impressionist paintings were on every tote bag, coffee mug and poster in every museum across the world, impressionism was derided by the masses and the established art world. It sounds unbelievable now, but Monet and company were the punk stars of their day. Armed with the latest invention – PAINT TUBES – artists were suddenly mobile. Artists now could paint right at the beach, overlook a valley, or set up in busy city squares and snarl at all the questions passerbys would ask them.
They painted quick, they painted loose. They were interested in light, and capturing those magic moments when the sun would cast a certain light on the edge of a Cathedral. The Art World, centered in France, validated the professional artists by including them in their annual Salon shows throughout Paris. Monet’s first exhibited paintings were famously and derisively called into question by ‘tongue lickings’ (Shout Out to KC’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art!)
Academic Salon Paintings
History shows impressionists persevered, all became famous and are now loved by Moms and art lovers all over the world. But what about their contemporaries’ Academic Salon Paintings? As things go with official seals of approval, academic paintings were largely tossed aside in the big book of Art History as modernism took hold of the art world. Today, it’s easy to hold an Art Degree and laugh and sneer at being on the Wrong Side of Art History, but the truth is those paintings are pretty tremendous in their own right.
Classical subjects like history, mythology and the Bible were painted alongside idyllic versions of life – women on swings, children playing in fields, etc. Together, these technically inspiring paintings were the accepted definition of art during their time. Today, it’s easy to pass them off as boring, weird or as a vestigial tail of the high art world that would lead into Art Worldly pejoratives like kitsch and illustration.
But so what? Look at some of the photos I took of these paintings. They’re a bizarre collection of odd composition choices, earnest drama, and unique little visions.
Enter the Barnes Collection
When faced with an intimate collection of art like the one at the Joslyn Art Museum, it’s easy to see habits, taste, and circumstance of the collector crop up throughout the collection. Comparisons and contrasts to other collections and other visions are easy to make. The greatest comparison that jumped into my head was the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia.
Albert Barnes was a Philadelphia chemist who made his fortune creating antiseptic drugs and became a huge art collector. He traveled to Europe often with his old friend and painter William Glackens. With an artist’s eye, he bought a lot of underappreciated art at the time before Impressionism was validated. Barnes ended up with nearly 200 Renoirs, 70 Cezannes, and 50 Picassos, in addition to another 4000 works of art. He wanted to share his newfound collection with the residents of his home city.
He opened the Barnes Collection in 1925. Barnes personally arranged and rearranged his art alongside African, Chinese, Greek and Native American art and furniture. Instantly derided as being ‘too avant garde’ by the elite members of Philadelphia, Barnes trusted his vision. The Barnes Collection would become a teaching museum with access limited to artists, students and the general public, nixing requests from the wealthy and entitled.
The Midwest/East Coast Conundrum
George Joslyn, rich through publishing, traveled to Europe and had a wildly different experience. Not the stereotypical insulated Midwesterner, George himself was well traveled. Born in New England, he cut his teeth in publishing in Montreal and didn’t even arrive in Omaha until 1880. I do not know of Joslyn’s experiences in Europe, or what inspired him to purchase the art that he did. I imagine he would have a liason or two throughout Europe that would sell this new American collector expensive works of art by established (i.e. Academic Salon Painters).
Both men were gloriously successful in their business endeavors, and both men bought a lot of art. Both men’s collections eventually became public institutions, and are cultural jewels in their respective cities. Almost to a fault, this comparison seems to mirror the Coast/Midwest stereotypes. The Coasts are experimental, worldly, provocative. The Midwest, insular, conservative, even a bit dull.
What Does All This Meandering Mean?
I think it ends better than that. The collection of art at the Joslyn is a pretty amazing collection. Well rounded, interesting and has some stellar examples from each period and region. And yes, there are some impressionist works on display. Enough to not be overwhelmed by them alike at many museums. There is a large amount of Academic work, but its a high level of work often relegated in larger museums. Revel in the odd compositions and artistic choices. Enjoy the technical precision, the way a single haired brushstroke can liven up a reflection on a pot. Then contrast the sappiness (and controversial nudity) of a Bouguereau with the immediacy, tone and genius of Delacroix studying a Reubens painting.
History is written by the winners, culture is driven by a select few. But interesting people, events and cities are built by people who take their own route. Omaha was lucky enough to have a cultural force that resulted in the Joslyn Art Museum.
One of the true benefits of life in the Midwest is that people can do things without the stress of a spotlight highlighting their every move. The need to be fashionable, hip or cutting edge, for better or worse, doesn’t apply much. There’s a freedom to fail, because your failure won’t be magnified endless times. Its often the overlooked work done in the cracks and shadows that is lauded as the most interesting visions. The Midwest allows things to grow on their own.
There’s also more time available to enjoy things. Culturally, and socially, attitudes are a bit more rigid, but there’s always an honest respect towards neighbors willing to put themselves out there and try. It’s why Kansas City is such a great city for art. It’s what makes collections like the Joslyn so valuable. Let the coasts have their style, the Midwest can maintain its soul. Right?
Thanks for a great time Omaha and the Joslyn Art Museum.
- If you don’t know about the history of the Barnes Collection, read this review of a movie you should watch. It’s a horrifying story!
- The ticket seller laughed at me for wearing a Royals hat when I visited the Barnes Collection in 2016. A true fact tangentially that is related to this writing misadventure.
- The Joslyn also featured two special exhibits. A wonderful exhibit by Fred Tomaselli, who manipulated New York Times covers. 30 Americans, an exhibition that traveled down I-29 and is now on view at the Nelson-Atkins until August 25th.