S.8, E.4: “We Aren’t Really Human without Art and the Arts”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus alum and director of the College's Hillstrom Museum of Art Donald Myers '83.
Posted on February 26th, 2021 by

Donald Myers, Gustavus Class of ’83 and Director and Senior Curator of the College’s Hillstrom Museum of Art, talks about his education and career in art, the origins and collections of the Hillstrom Museum, his responsibilities as director, some of the museum’s memorable exhibitions, including two focused on infamous art forger Elmyr de Hory, and why creating and studying art matters so much.

Season 8, Episode 4: “We Aren’t Really Human without Art and the Arts”

Greg Kaster:

Hello and welcome to Learning for Life at Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College and the myriad ways a Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster, faculty member in the department of history.

My younger brother and I grew up amid walls covered with artwork, mostly oil paintings in an abstract style, and virtually all of it painted and framed by our dad who did it as a hobby, though he said he had taken lessons in his youth at the Art Institute of Chicago. Maybe being surrounded by paintings and the trips we took as a family to the Art Institute is one reason I feel so comfortable in art museums, including the excellent Hillstrom Museum on the Gustavus campus.

Joining me today is Donald Myers, director of the Hillstrom, a position he has held for the last 20 years. An alumnus of Gustavus, Don graduated magna cum laude in 1983 with majors in art history and accounting, and a minor in studio art. He earned an MA in art history and museum studies from the University of Southern California and is currently working on his PhD degree from the University of Maryland. Before returning to his alma mater, Don held curatorial positions in the department of sculpture and decorative arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. An active scholar, he has numerous publications to his name including essays and exhibition catalogs for the Hillstrom Museum. He also teaches art history courses as a member of the department of art and art history at Gustavus.

In this awful pandemic moment, when art museums and other art venues around the globe face considerable financial pressures and they also seem more essential than ever, I wanted to speak with Don about his career at the Hillstrom, and it’s great to have him on the podcast. So welcome, Don.

Donald Myers:

Thank you, Greg. Thank you so much for having me. I’m pleased to be here with you.

Greg Kaster:

It’s great to have you. I wish we could be together in the Hillstrom. You’re there now, I think you said right before we started recording, right? You’re in your office there?

Donald Myers:

I am, that’s correct.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, so how has Hillstrom been affected by COVID? Tell us.

Donald Myers:

Well, it’s very quiet here and we are open but very limited in who can come at this point, and of course that’s very frustrating for us. Starting in the fall semester, we were on the college’s code orange which meant that anyone on campus could come to the museum but the general public needed to ask for an invitation, and that was okay but it meant that we had far fewer people coming in. Right now we’re still in the lay low period, so basically only students and on campus people with an academic need to come are technically allowed. So it’s very quiet here, and of course that’s incredibly frustrating because we’re all about presentation.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Donald Myers:

The reason why a museum exists is because it wants to present artworks and preserve those artworks. If you can’t show the artworks to people you’re just not doing it.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Donald Myers:

We have developed a number of initiatives to try to expand our online presence, but nothing is ever as good as actually seeing the artworks in person.

Greg Kaster:

Right, yeah, well that’s true. Boy, I’m just thinking about times when I had had art history courses and then saw the actual painting in person. What a difference. You just made a really important point though. In a way it’s obvious, but I hadn’t really thought about that. Just in a way how cruel this pandemic is to museums, right? I mean, the whole point is to be engaged with the public.

Donald Myers:

Right.

Greg Kaster:

And there you are, so yeah, it’s not just the financial; it’s the whole mission.

Donald Myers:

Exactly, the mission. I mean, we’re all very passionate about… I think of museum people as just loving the things that they’re in charge of, that they work with, and wanting to convey that to others. If you can’t show them, how can you do that?

Greg Kaster:

Right, yeah. Yeah, and I agree. Online, it’s helpful. I’ve done a little bit with the Minnesota Orchestra here and also the Met, Metropolitan Museum of Art, but it’s still not the same. Better than nothing, but not the same.

Donald Myers:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

We can come back to that, and what exhibits are there, in a bit. Let’s circle back in time to your own background. Tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how you came to Gustavus as a student.

Donald Myers:

Well, I am from Southern Minnesota. Small town called Ceylon, Minnesota.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, I don’t know where that is. Where is that?

Donald Myers:

It’s close to Fairmont and it’s right on the Iowa border. I suppose its main claim to fame is that it’s where the Mondales lived and Fritz Mondale was born, his hometown.

Greg Kaster:

Oh.

Donald Myers:

So Gustavus wasn’t too far away, and I had some teachers, probably most notably my music teacher, who had gone to Gustavus and spoke about how strong a program it was in whatever you wanted to take, so it was kind of always in the background of my mind and really it’s the only school that I applied to when I was ready to go off to college. It’s funny, I was thinking about this: when I first started at Gustavus I thought I might be a physics major. That did not happen; in fact I didn’t take any physics classes at all. It’s kind of a point of irony with our family because my son is also a Gustie. He graduated in 2019 and he was a physics major, and is now in physics graduate study.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that’s great. That’s terrific. That’s funny.

Donald Myers:

Yeah. My wife and I both are class of 1983, so we’re very strong lovers of Gustavus. I’m not what you call a perma-Gustie; I didn’t stay here the whole time after graduation. We were away from Minnesota for a number of years, a decade and a half or so.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Donald Myers:

You were going to say something?

Greg Kaster:

Oh no, I’m just thinking that’s right; there’s the perma-Gustie who comes and graduates and stays, and then there are the people, the Gusties like you who head off for a bit and sometimes come back. I’m just curious. What is your wife’s name?

Donald Myers:

Joni.

Greg Kaster:

Joni. Did you and Joni meet at Gustavus, or?

Donald Myers:

We did, yes. We actually met at a party in one of the dorms. I remembered that, but she didn’t. Then we got to know each other in Bruce McClain’s painting class. She was a studio art major.

Greg Kaster:

Wow, that’s great. That’s wonderful. Yeah, Bruce McClain one of the profs, I want to come back and maybe talk a bit about him, some of your teachers. My dad did not go to college, as regular listeners know. My mom went to a two years teachers college. Had your parents gone to college or are you a first generation?

Donald Myers:

No; my father took a couple of courses. They were both from Ames, Iowa, so at Iowa State University. But no, neither of them were college grads. But I have an older brother who had gone through and had done some graduate study, so it was kind of the norm to expect that yeah, maybe you will go to college.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Donald Myers:

It wasn’t a surprise, or anything.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, same here. I don’t know, I think about that a lot. My parents are deceased; I wish I could talk to them about that. Both my parent, but my dad was always so encouraging, even when I was struggling to complete my PhD he was still supportive in more ways than one, and that’s not always the case with people who themselves haven’t gone to college.

What about the attraction to art history? It sounds like you came thinking you would major in physics. How did you wind up in art history?

Donald Myers:

Well, I was also interested in accounting but also art, studio art. For quite a while I was a studio art major. The only thing that I lacked was a life drawing class and then the senior show. But I took Linnea Wren’s art history class, and I knew that I would like it. I just didn’t know how much I would like it. So after Art 101, I thought, “Huh, this is fantastic. I love this.” And at that time, the art history major was what they called a distributed major. You cobbled it together with your advisor’s assistance and you had classes from not only the art department but for instance classics and I can’t remember where else, but it was something that I had to definitely reach out to do and I was very pleased how it turned out. I thought Linnea Wren was a fantastic professor.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, yeah. Linnea, I actually would like to record with her. Now retired, but when I came, to me she was one of the greats on the faculty. I loved art history as an undergraduate and I have such strong memories of Linnea, seeing Linnea, you know, I’m a new faculty member, in the library. I would go to the library to finish my dissertation or try to finish it and there would be Linnea. In the summer, working and doing research. I just found that very inspiring. I wondered if you had studied with her, because she taught over her career just so many wonderful students who have gone on to do some amazing things, including you.

And so with studio art, Bruce McClain was there, whose paintings I love. Was he there, it sounds like you said?

Donald Myers:

Oh, yeah. He definitely was, and he was certainly very encouraging. He also taught art history. He taught the contemporary art history class, and that was another influence for me. I think the world of Bruce, and of him as an artist too. We’ve done two exhibits of his work here at the Hillstrom Museum of Art.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, which I loved.

Donald Myers:

He’s a fantastic painter.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Well, I’ve got a thing about airplanes I’ve had since a kid, so all that art that he does relating to that, I just love, including that exhibit at the Hillstrom. What about, I’m trying to think who else. Don Palmgren, was he there?

Donald Myers:

He was, yeah. Don was my wife’s and my instructors both, and he was very encouraging. I think that Joni was particularly close to him. We had a big exhibit not too long after he retired. His works are also really quite wonderful.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I mean just some terrific artists. Then of course Paul Granlund the sculptor, was he already there as well?

Donald Myers:

Yeah, he was. He was in the point where he wasn’t doing much teaching anymore, but he was definitely a presence. I didn’t really know him very well; it wasn’t until later when we did the exhibit in 2003, a retrospective of his career, that we got to know each other very well. I ran into him at the National Gallery of Art and I recognized him; he didn’t recognize me. That was kind of a fun encounter.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I didn’t know much about him. I knew of his work through a friend who someone in her family had gone to college with Paul, so I was aware of his work before coming to Gustavus and of course had seen it. I mean, it’s all over the place. But that was kind of cool, to know he was there.

I’m thinking about your own experience in studio art. Was it painting you were drawn to or drawing, or sculpting? What were you doing?

Donald Myers:

No, it was definitely painting and I still love the smell of oil paint particularly. I have the idea that someday, maybe when I retire, I will return to it. I’m not claiming to be a great artist, but I just always enjoyed it. One of my proudest moments was Don Gregory was another faculty member at Gustavus and he was close to being retired at the time that I was a student here, but he was teaching a little bit. He was on campus and we were doing self-portraits in Bruce McClain’s class and there was some kind of art department gathering and Don Gregory told me that he really liked my self-portrait. Oh boy was I in heaven when I heard that.

Greg Kaster:

On cloud nine, yeah.

Donald Myers:

Yeah, absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

You know, it’s funny you mention about the smell of oil paints. I smell it right now. Thinking about our conversation, because I can smell… My dad was a hairdresser and as I said, didn’t go to college. He said he studied at the Art Institute; I’ve never verified that but any case, he grew up in Chicago and he would sometimes… He owned his own salons, often, and my brother and I worked in the salons as clean-up boys. But he would announce to us, “Boys, I’m having a painting fit.” I can still hear him saying it. And off we would go to the art supplies store, which I also love. He’d buy stuff and then he would just go to the garage. This is in suburban Park Forest, a south suburb of Chicago, and just paint and paint like mad. Like a madman, it seemed to me. But sometimes on wood, often on canvas, and then he would frame them. He’d frame them wet, too. I mean, he just did it all. But anyway, that smell brings back a lot of fond memories.

Donald Myers:

Absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

Unlike you, I never studied… I took a couple of art courses maybe in high school, but my brother and I and a good friend, we liked to play we were Van Gogh or Gauguin. Our impression was to just slap on oil paint on canvas. But that’s not painting.

Anyway, so you majored in accounting. Is that something that came before the art history or with it, or after? How did that come about?

Donald Myers:

Well, that was something that was kind of in my mind when I started. Another of my teachers in Ceylon had been a Gustavus grad and he was the bookkeeping teacher, and it just seemed like, “Well this is something that I could possibly do.” So I did a double major, and right after graduating from Gustavus I actually worked for a year as an auditor for a certified public accounting firm in Minneapolis, Adrian Helgeson and company. At that time, they were doing all the audits for the Lutheran colleges, so I actually worked on the St Olaf audit in that year.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Donald Myers:

It’s interesting to me: there’s a tendency of people to think of art people as being maybe not well grounded. Flaky, perhaps. I have found that when I tell people that I also have an accounting major, it sort of changes their opinion.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Donald Myers:

It’s like, “Oh, okay.”

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, right. You’re not just some flake. I know exactly what you mean. I would think that that has served you well too, certainly in your current position as the-

Donald Myers:

Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s just a mindset, being able to deal with numbers. That’s always come pretty naturally to me as well; I don’t feel like I have difficulties with budgets, for instance.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, no, I’m also imagining you have a lot of dirt on all the Lutheran colleges as an auditor. I know, that’s ancient history and maybe another podcast.

Donald Myers:

Things have all changed by now.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I’m sure.

I love the National Gallery, and I’m sure many listeners if not all listeners I’m sure have been there. How did you land that gig? I mean, that must have been incredible.

Donald Myers:

Oh, it was a wonderful experience. After a year of working as an auditor, I went onto the program in art hist/museum studies at the University of Southern California. I had applied for that and gotten a really nice package, and then deferred when I got the job. Part of that program, it was the same amount of art history as their masters program but it also then added to that a two semester museum studies class which was the basis of my own museum studies class here at Gustavus. Then there was a third year that was an internship at a museum. I was able to arrange an internship in the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture department. The program was heavily supported by the very wealthy Getty Museum at that time, and so we actually were given a living stipend which made it possible for my wife and me to move out to DC. I did my nine months internship and then was immediately hired on in the department after that was over.

Greg Kaster:

That’s fantastic.

Donald Myers:

That was just a fantastic experience. Being in a place like that every day, being able to… Lunch break and I’m going to go look at a Jan Van Eyck, just simply mouthwateringly gorgeous painting. It’s just amazing.

Greg Kaster:

That’s so cool. Just a couple of summers ago I was there in DC for a National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute. A bunch of us took time. I had never been, believe it or not, to the portrait gallery, and oh my God. That was just wow. Just amazing.

Donald Myers:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I love that. I love DC.

Donald Myers:

Oh, it’s wonderful for museums.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Donald Myers:

And you get sort of spoiled because pretty much all of them are free.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah exactly, no, that’s right. Which reminds me: I was always embarrassed. My dad would say, “You don’t have to pay to go to the Art Institute.” At least at that time, I would say, “No dad, that’s not true.” And he was right; just was a donation. So I remember once he, proving the point to me, left a quarter as we went in. Anyway, that’s all another story, right? Getting museums funded.

Donald Myers:

You know, I think that most museum people would rather that people come in that way than hold back because they don’t have whatever the going rate is.

Greg Kaster:

Sure.

Donald Myers:

I know that’s how I feel.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Well yeah, and the Hillstrom is free, right?

Donald Myers:

Oh, absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

It’s open to anybody.

Donald Myers:

Yeah, that’s pretty standard for a college or university museum. But yeah, the Minneapolis Institute of Art is free too, and I think that’s a great thing.

Greg Kaster:

A fabulous museum, and my wife and I, Kate and I, live downtown not that far. Downtown Minneapolis, it’s a great museum.

So from there, with that incredible experience and you’re doing some teaching and lecturing as well and writing of course, but from there you returned, what was it in 2000 you returned to Gustavus to take up the current position as director of the Hillstrom? Why don’t we talk a little bit or have you talk a little bit about the Hillstrom, its founding, its mission and why you decided to come back?

Donald Myers:

Sure. Well, as I said earlier, my wife and I both were and are very fond of Gustavus, and so the idea of being able to come here and be involved with it beyond being a student was very appealing. Actually, I came a little earlier. I was a sabbatical replacement for Linnea Wren in, let’s see, I think it was the fall of 1998 and J term of 1999. So I came back and took leave from the national gallery and taught here. Then a little bit later, they created a new teaching position which I started in early 2000. But already at that time, this was past the tornado and somebody had the idea that we could create a museum in the north end of the campus center. So that was in the works, and I heard about it and I think people thought that perhaps people thought that that might be something of interest to me; that I might be a good fit, et cetera, et cetera. So that was kind of in my mind already, and then early in 2000, that’s when I was appointed to be the director of the museum.

Technically I’m the director and the senior curator. Those things all kind of are meaningless when you just have me and my assistant, Colleen Hanson. We’ve got to do everything. I’m also the registrar. I’m also the preparator.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, you do everything, it’s true. So when you… We say the Hillstrom, right, and I often just call it Hillstrom, but tell us a little bit about Hillstrom, who he is, was.

Donald Myers:

Sure.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Donald Myers:

Yeah, no. Reverend Richard L. Hillstrom. He was a Gustavus grad of 1938, and I think it’s entirely appropriate that the museum was named after him. Our own collection, which now numbers close to 600 works, is based on his collection. He donated many artworks to the museum during his lifetime and then also in his will. He was also an incredible monetary supporter. We have an endowment that allows us to acquire a few works of art and cover some other expenses as well, and Reverend Hillstrom was the primary donor to that. I well remember in 2012 getting a call from Rick and him saying, “I’m going to be sending you a check for the endowment for a million dollars.” Okay, that’s fantastic.

Greg Kaster:

Those are numbers I can understand, yeah.

Donald Myers:

Yes, exactly. So we’re named after Rick Hillstrom. Before I came to campus, it was recognized that maybe if the college would create a venue of this sort, that Rick would be interested in giving the college his collection. He had already given a handful of artworks, and basically if you build it they’ll come. That’s what happened. We built the museum and when we first opened, Rick showed me a list of his collection; list of the works still in his holding, because he had donated to many different institutions across Minnesota. The Walker, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Weisman, et cetera.

That list, the 70 works on the bottom of it, think of it as a list that’s prioritized by most important works at the top and least important works at the bottom, the 70 of them at the bottom were designated to come to Gustavus. The reset were going to go to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. So of course, you know what my goal was. Let’s get all those to come here. I was almost successful. There were a few works that Rick still gave to the MIA, and I don’t begrudge that in any way. I often feel kind of bad. I know that they must have thought that they’d be getting all his collection. They did a big exhibit of his collection in 1993, I think it was. I’m sure all of those works, at that time, would have been going to them if it hadn’t been that the Hillstrom Museum of Art was opened.

Greg Kaster:

Well I don’t know, maybe you can loan them some or something. First of all, I never met him. I heard so much about him. I just think it’s cool. For some reason I think it’s really neat that a man who’s a minister is also this incredible art collector. Do you have any idea how he got started in collecting?

Donald Myers:

Yeah, I do. It was a story that he liked to tell. He did not study art at Gustavus. Basically there wasn’t art to study in his day, and he didn’t grow up, like your background, with a father who did paintings. There were a few pictures on the walls of their home. He was from Dassel, Minnesota, not terribly far from here. But when he went to seminary and started being a Lutheran minister, he met and became friends with another minister who had some paintings by some Swedish American artist. It’s like a light bulb went off: he suddenly thought, “You know, I could do that too,” and he started collecting these paintings by people like Birger Sandzén and it just snowballed from there. Initially he collected artists who were Swedish Americans. Then he comes back to Minnesota and he is very active in collecting important Minnesota artists like Cameron Booth or Clement Haupers.

Then he went on a cruise and started reading about the great American impressionist artist John Twachtman, and he thought, “I’m going to expand to not just be regional artists but important American artists nationally.” That’s when he started collecting Ashcan School artists, the so-called Eight, and regionalist works and that sort of thing. It became the core of his collecting. I always describe it as being American art of the first half of the 20th century, mostly in the figurative tradition.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. I have a big smile on my face when you said Ashcan because that’s some of my favorite art and I love that part of the collection. It’s just a great story; it’s fantastic. Some of that, I suppose, some of what you’re talking about, your working to acquire all and getting most of his collection, is that typically what a director of a museum is involved in?

Donald Myers:

Oh yeah, absolutely. If you’re an acquiring museum, you’re keeping your eyes open for ways to acquire, and obvious the best way is to get people to give you things.

Greg Kaster:

Sure.

Donald Myers:

Rick was extremely generous in that way. We have some fantastic works. I have to tell you a story. Rick always described his George Bellows painting as the cream of the crop of his collection. George Bellows is really recognized as one of the most important American artists of the first half of the 20th century, and just by example when the National Gallery in London acquired its first work by an American artist, it was a George Bellows painting. So one day I was visiting Rick and he said, “I want you to sit down.” He said he had decided that he thought he should give the Bellows to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I’m sure that I probably totally blanched and sputtered, and I didn’t have much to say then, but I went home and then the next day I was ready to call him and just lay out why it would be better to give it to us, because it would be part of his overall collection. I barely got started on my plea, and he said, “Well, never mind because I’ve changed my mind.”

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. You know, you’re reminding me of my wife Kate’s mom. She, and I guess her dad too, to some extent, but she wasn’t I would say a collector, but she acquired antiques and things and Kate and I have a Bellows that she has. I’m trying to think, I think could it be a… I should run and go look at it, but it’s a sketch. It’s sort of dark. I should bring that in and show you some time.

Donald Myers:

I’d love to see it, yeah. You can take a photo and show it to me.

Greg Kaster:

Oh yeah, I’ll do that. Sure. I’ll do that too.

Donald Myers:

Bellows was a real favorite of Reverend Hillstrom. With many of the artists, most of the artist that he collected, he would get one work and then he’d go on to another artist.

Greg Kaster:

Ah, interesting.

Donald Myers:

But with Bellows, he has the oil painting which is the cream of the crop, and quite a few drawings and four of Bellows’ lithographs.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. That is so great. So being a director of a place like the Hillstrom means acquiring. What other responsibilities are yours as director?

Donald Myers:

Well, obviously-

Greg Kaster:

Short answer is everything, I know.

Donald Myers:

Well yeah, everything. But I mean, our exhibitions program I think is the most visible thing that I do. We have an active exhibitions program. Usually in an academic year we’ll show somewhere between four and eight different exhibits, often running contemporaneously. We always will cap off our year with the annual senior show, but we do a wide variety of exhibitions and planning that and figuring out what’s possible, because we do exhibits based on what we have here but we also borrow exhibits. Sometimes they’re ones that are organized, like the two current exhibits of works by Arthur Bowen Davies. Those were organized by the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia. So we borrowed the exhibit from them. But we’ll also put together our own exhibits. You mentioned Elmyr de Hory, the show that we had last spring that unfortunately closed down because of the onslaught of the pandemic. That was portraits by Elmyr de Hory, and was a wonderful show and just so sad to not be able to keep it open, especially after the New York Times had an article that covered it.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, we saw that. We’re avid readers of the times. Tell us, I was hoping we would get to talk about that. I wanted us to. Tell us a little bit about de Hory, who he was. That was a great show, great story.

Donald Myers:

Well, we actually had two exhibits of his work. Back in 2010 we did our first one, and he was one of the most notorious art forgers in US history. Mark Forgy met him as a young man. He was doing a backpacking trip across Europe and he happened to go to Ibiza and met this dapper gentleman who became his friend, and eventually Mark became his assistant. At the time, Mark didn’t know that there was this story exploding about Elmyr as this incredible art faker. But it came to light soon after, when Clifford Irving wrote a book about Elmyr de Hory. And of course Clifford Irving, right after that he wrote his fake, which was a biography of Howard Hughes.

Greg Kaster:

Right, exactly.

Donald Myers:

And then the story was also told in a movie by none other than Orson Welles. You can see Mark Forgy in the Orson Welles film. But Mark became the heir to Elmyr de Hory and so has this wonderful stash, cache of works by Elmyr. Those were the basis of the two exhibits that we had.

Just a fascinating story. Elmyr held himself up as being a Hungarian aristocrat falling on hard times because of the war. It was a lot of spinning of tales, really. But he did get to know a lot of high society people. He was close friends with Ursula Andress. Supposedly he made a portrait of Zsa Zsa Gabor that she didn’t like and wouldn’t pay for. But just a fascinating, fascinating story and Mark actually wrote a memoir of his time with Elmyr. It’s called The Forger’s Apprentice. He gave a lecture at the time of our first exhibit based on his connection with Elmyr, and then he was going to give another lecture when the second exhibit last year occurred, but of course everything had to be canceled.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. That is a shame. But it was absolutely fascinating. Mark didn’t go to Gustavus, did he?

Donald Myers:

No. He was a student from Hopkins and then just decided to go tour Europe, I think partly because of wanting to avoid going to Vietnam.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Donald Myers:

And not too many years later when Elmyr de Hory died, he took his own life, Mark was the heir and so he comes back to Minnesota and just sits with his story and his objects. I met him through faculty member Stan Shetka.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, sure.

Donald Myers:

And visited Mark. He was living in the Twin Cities at that time, and saw the works and thought, “God, this is a fantastic story.” And of course I’m thinking, “We want to do an exhibit.” Which is what we did.

Greg Kaster:

You know, there are so many questions I want to ask about and I don’t have time for all of them, but one is once a forger is found out, as de Hory was, then what is the value of what the person has forged?

Donald Myers:

Well, it depends on the forger. Elmyr was somebody who wanted to be recognized as a fine artist on his own, so once he was identified, he did a lot of works in his own style, or works that he signed with his own name in the style of other people like Henri Matisse or Modigliani. He also was always doing these portraits of people, of sort society, café life in Ibiza. He was a very accomplished draftsman. But because of the notoriety of him, his works, whether they’re in his own hand or especially if they’re works purporting to be by other artist, they can be really quite valuable. In fact, there’s a very active market, especially on eBay, of fake Elmyr fakes.

Greg Kaster:

Oh my God.

Donald Myers:

Mark Forgy is carefully policing that as much as he can, but you see things that are, “This is Elmyr de Hory.” And it’s like, it’s not at all.

Greg Kaster:

It’s a fake fake. Oh, that’s amazing. So I don’t know, we talk about deep fake and the internet. Wow. That’s incredible. Somehow this all relates to fake news, I suppose we’ll figure it out. But oh wow, that’s fascinating. So do you think, would there be plans to remount that exhibit that had to close because of COVID, or?

Donald Myers:

No, I don’t think that that’s really a thing that we would do. We’re always moving forward, looking to the next thing, and we typically have our exhibitions planned at least a couple of years in advance. The exhibit did go through about half of its time. We have a catalog, the catalog is on our website. I wish we had been able to do… We’ve started now doing what I call walkthrough video tours.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Donald Myers:

We have a videographer just do a straight line through the exhibit, do an image of every work and then we superimpose the title, date and medium, et cetera. I wish we had been able to do that. But we did do some work with the fine arts office, and for a while, I think four weeks in a row, we were doing museum Mondays and there were images put up on the Facebook page and I think other social media sites as well with descriptions, and that gave a taste of what the installation looked like as well as focusing on particular works.

Greg Kaster:

Right, and these videos that you’re doing, right? Are you in the videos, the walkthroughs and are they available on the museum website?

Donald Myers:

Right, they are on the website. Actually the college has a Gustavus grad, Will Clark, who’s been doing the-

Greg Kaster:

Oh, Will who does the podcast. Will is our technical guru for this podcast.

Donald Myers:

Okay, wonderful. Well, he’s also a great videographer and we’ve been very pleased to be able to do this. My hope is that we can continue doing this really for any exhibit that it’s possible. For our next exhibit, I’m posing the question to the artist: are you willing to do this?

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Donald Myers:

Whenever I can, I want to be able to make that available. Because not everybody can get to St Peter.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Donald Myers:

You always worry that people are going to do that instead of coming to the museum. I don’t think it really is going to come to that.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, it’s interesting. I’m thinking here because first of all, the larger question is just the whole, what will be some of the lasting effects of this pandemic on work, on museums? And for example, what you just said: that you’re only doing this because of COVID, but maybe it’s something worth continuing afterwards.

Donald Myers:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I know other museums, you know more about that than I do, are considering the same.

The exhibitions that you have planned, I’d like to talk just a little bit about those in a second, but before that, aside from de Hory are there past exhibitions that really have, and I know this a ridiculous and impossible question, but that have really been favorites of yours at the Hillstrom?

Donald Myers:

Oh yeah, absolutely. I was looking back over the chronological list, and each year I’d look and think, “Oh yeah, we did that.” One of the top that comes to mind is in 2012, as part of the celebration of the sesquicentennial of the college, we did an exhibit called 150 Years of Swedish Art: Highlights from the Swedish National Collections. And we borrowed a total of about 50 artworks, ranging in dates basically from when Gustavus was founded in 1862 until the current time. Those were from the National Gallery in Stockholm and the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm. It was fantastic to be able to bring those works here to put together this display of really remarkable masterpieces. There was a work by August Strindberg, for instance, from these fantastic collections in Stockholm.

One of my favorite stories about it is there’s a well known depiction of the death of King Gustavus Adolphus on the battlefield in Lützen. If you go to the National Gallery in Stockholm, you go up the stairs, this grand staircase, and it’s there at the top of the stairs. We were able to borrow that painting. I actually did the cataloging of it myself because I loved it so much. I was told that a visitor from Sweden came to see the exhibit and walked in the door and mouth dropped open and said, “What’s that doing here?” In a way it’s insulting, but also it’s like, “Yeah.”

Greg Kaster:

Exactly, right. That’s funny. There’s a catalog for that, you said, right?

Donald Myers:

There is yeah. It’s actually a very beautiful catalog. We had wonderful support in putting on this by Åke Bonnier, who was part of the board at that time, and we were able to produce a lovely, beautiful hardcover catalog. They’re certainly available. The exhibit was visited by the king and queen of Sweden.

Greg Kaster:

Right, I remember that, yeah.

Donald Myers:

That was very exciting, to give them a little bit of an introduction to the exhibit.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I remember-

Donald Myers:

[crosstalk 00:40:10] travelled elsewhere.

Greg Kaster:

Well you know, just a quick aside here. I’ve always wondered. These paintings you’re borrowing, they’re just, what, are they shipped by airplane I assume? They’re heavily insured, I at least hope?

Donald Myers:

Yeah, oh, absolutely. I mean, there are crates that are created for the artworks and the crates are basically artworks themselves. They can be really incredibly beautifully done and very, very protective. But this was an undertaking that was beyond what we’re usually capable of doing, and we actually hired a separate registrar to help with that process. There was a lot of negotiation. You’ve got to deal with bringing things and importing things in through customs. Things that we don’t usually do. I remember there was one artwork that we were going to borrow from the Moderna Museet and it was quite large, and it turned out that it was too large for its crate to go on a normal airplane and therefore it would have had to be taken first I think to somewhere in Germany. It made a huge difference, so we had to sadly cut that out of the exhibit.

Greg Kaster:

The current exhibit, as you mentioned, is it drawings? Drawings by Arthur Bowen Davies. Is that?

Donald Myers:

Well, it’s mostly drawings but there are paintings as well. It’s actually two exhibits at the same time, but they’re both Arthur Bowen Davies.

Greg Kaster:

Okay.

Donald Myers:

They were organized by the Maier Museum, as I mentioned earlier, and the co-curator was Mac Cosgrove-Davies, who is the grandson of the artist and who serves as a curator and cataloger of an extensive collection of his own and some of his relatives, and many of the works are from the Maier Museum but also many of them are from Mac and his family’s collections.

Greg Kaster:

Tell us just a little bit briefly about Davies himself.

Donald Myers:

Yeah, he’s a fascinating artist. He’s crucial to our collection, because he is one of The Eight. These were there eight artist who banded together and sort of in the face of the National Academy put together an exhibit at the Macbeth Galleries in 1908. Davies was one of them. The interesting thing about Davies, The Eight were the start of the Ashcan School, one of the important modern American schools, and Davies’ own work has this kind of dreamy quality to it. It’s like Arcadian images. He was a fantastic draftsman, but you don’t necessarily think of what his artwork looks like. He’s lumped together as part of The Eight, and their modernist approach, but he also was the primary instigator of the famous Armory Show.

Greg Kaster:

Oh yeah.

Donald Myers:

Which brought European modernism to America. That was in 1913. So he’s remembered for that, and people sort of, “Oh, but his art doesn’t really look like Picasso or Picabia,” or these artists who were great modernists who were exploding the way art looks. So this was a wonderful chance to show he has his own modernistic ideals but his vision is not necessarily like what other modernists did. Just a wonderful artist. We have two works by him in our collection.

Greg Kaster:

And is this exhibit, it’s available online right? People can look at it?

Donald Myers:

It is, yeah. We’ve really gone out as much as possible to make it accessible. There is a video walkthrough tour, so you can see every work including the two from our collection that we’ve supplemented the exhibit with. There is a pdf of the catalog that the Maier Museum put together, so you can read the whole catalog. There is also a pdf of an article that I wrote about the exhibit for the American Art Review that just came out.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, terrific.

Donald Myers:

And then Mac Cosgrove-Davies very generously, he was going to come and give a lecture and so he and I worked together, we recorded through Google Meet an online lecture and that is available through the website as well.

Greg Kaster:

That’s all terrific. The exhibits coming up, why don’t you tease us a little bit? Give us a sneak preview of at least a few. What’s in store?

Donald Myers:

Yeah, sure. I’m happy to do so. The next exhibit, which opens in early February, is an exhibit of the fabric art and poetry of Gwen Westerman. Gwen is a Dakota scholar and artist and poet. She’s been associated with the museum in the past. In 2012 we did an exhibit called Hena Uŋkiksuyapi, which is Dakota for “We Remember Those,” and it was a commemoration of the 38 men who were executed by the US in 1862, the day after Christmas as part of the aftermath of the Dakota-US War. I asked Gwen to serve as a co-curator for that exhibit, which invited Native artists, mostly Dakota, to create or show works that somehow commented on that crucial happening of all these people being executed.

Greg Kaster:

That’s fantastic.

Donald Myers:

So Gwen is coming back to do an exhibit of her quilts and her fabric art and her poetry. She recently was part of an exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and so we’re very excited to show the works by Gwen. So that’s coming up next, and then we’ll have our senior show in May.

Greg Kaster:

Right. That’s great.

Donald Myers:

Next year there are a couple of different things I want to mention. One is that we will regularly do exhibits of works by Gustavus studio art faculty, and so we’re planning an exhibit of Kris Lowe’s works in late fall of this year. It opens just before Thanksgiving and will close at the end of J term. Then we also have something that’s come up relatively recently. Fevzi Yazıcı is a Turkish journalist and artist who has been imprisoned by the government, and he’s done a number of artworks from prison. So this is an exhibit that was organized by St John’s University in Jamaica, New York, and it’s going to come here in spring of next year.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. I just read about him and his art somewhere, I don’t know if it was the New York Times. Somewhere. That’s fantastic, wow.

Donald Myers:

Yeah, it’s very exciting. There was some major coverage of it in the Washington Post.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that’s where I read it. That’s where I read it, because I subscribe, yeah.

Donald Myers:

Yeah, okay. Yeah, and the interesting thing is he’s a “journalist,” quote-unquote, but he’s really an art designer for journalism. His drawings, while they’re small because you can’t do very large works in prison, and they’re very precise. Just even if you didn’t know that fascinating and really compelling story, the works are compelling in and of themselves just for what they are.

Greg Kaster:

That’s so great. I look forward to all of those. Great stuff coming up. And the other thing I wanted to mention, I forgot but it just occurred to me that you have… I think that’s part of the museum’s collection, the cartoonist whose cartoons-

Donald Myers:

Yes, Gene Basset.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, Gene Basset, who I remember growing up with some of those, but incredible drawings. Are they editorial cartoons? Is that the right word?

Donald Myers:

Yeah. We did an exhibit in 2005. Those aren’t actually in our collection, but Gene is a part of our museum advisory committee, as is his wife Ann. Wonderful people. Gene was sent to Vietnam in the mid-60s by the newspapers where Gene worked, the Scripps Howard papers, and they basically were hoping to convince him. He was an editorial cartoonist who was doing anti-Vietnam involvement cartoons, drawings. They wanted to convince him that it was a good thing for the US to be there, so he goes off to Vietnam, gets shot at, does a number of images both of conflict and also daily life. So we did an exhibit of those drawings, and it was eventually put together as a book as well.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Donald Myers:

And I remembered and wanted to thank you again, because you did a wonderful gallery talk-

Greg Kaster:

I was thrilled.

Donald Myers:

About the Vietnam conflict.

Greg Kaster:

Thrilled.

Donald Myers:

And that was just a fantastic addition to the exhibit. There was also, I don’t know if you recall this, but we had at the same time an exhibit by an artist named Lam Nguyen.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, I remember it.

Donald Myers:

A California artist who was born in Vietnam and I think he was on the last transport out of Vietnam.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Donald Myers:

Those were nice counterpoints to each other.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, I’m literally getting the chills here thinking about all of that. They were great, it was fantastic. I mean, the cartoons, the drawings especially, just daily life, were just absolutely amazing, for both soldiers and civilians. Incredible.

Donald Myers:

Yeah, he just captured so well the movement, the ultimate of any one particular person. For a while, he was actually contributing his drawings to the Free Press in Mankato.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Donald Myers:

Just a great thing.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great, yeah, no, just wonderful. That was one of the highlights for me of my time at Gustavus. So lots of things to look forward to, including even seeing now the current exhibition. I’m wondering too about Paul Granlund, and we should say something about Paul’s work. It’s so important, I think, to the identity of Gustavus, at least its modern identity, current identity. Tell us a little bit about Paul and why his work is significant.

Donald Myers:

Well, Paul was a Gustavus grad and then he went on to do graduate studies at the U and also at Cranbrook, and had quite a career, not just at Gustavus but he kind of visually symbolizes Gustavus in many ways.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Donald Myers:

And a master craftsperson in bronze casting, and the college as a whole is sort a museum to Paul Granlund’s work. I don’t know how many works there are on public view that are on campus. We have several smaller works, mostly from Reverend Hillstrom, that are part of our collection. Just a wonderful man, very inventive. Will Freiert wrote a book about Paul’s work, and I think that’s a very good resource and appreciative of what kinds of things Paul was doing. He was very supportive of the museum as well. We did actually two exhibits. Connected with the sesquicentennial, we did our second major Granlund exhibit, which was off his portraiture, an important part of his whole overall oeuvre. But in 2003, we did a large retrospective show and in the couple of years leading up to that, I worked with Paul very closely and got to know him quite well and considered him a close friend. That exhibit actually opened to the public on the day he died.

Greg Kaster:

Aw, wow. I did not know that. Oh. That’s weird, right?

Donald Myers:

Yeah. It was shocking in a way, but I am so grateful that he got to see it almost in its final state.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Donald Myers:

We are always doing things at the last minute, because small staff.

Greg Kaster:

Sure.

Donald Myers:

But it was looking pretty much like it would look, and he did get a chance to see it.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that’s great. That’s sad, and yet somehow fitting, right? That it opens-

Donald Myers:

Yeah, it’s poignant.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, exactly. I got to see him teach. I can’t even remember why, but at some point I was able to watch him teach a class at Gustavus which was just a wonder. I mean, it was just incredible to watch, both watch him and watch his interaction with the students and watch them watching him, too. It was great; I still have vivid memories of that.

Donald Myers:

And it was always an event when he was casting. People would come and watch it.

Greg Kaster:

Oh yes, yeah, I never watched but I knew about the event, yeah. Because that occurred on campus, right? I mean…

Donald Myers:

Yeah, yeah, he had the foundry right there and he invited us to bring our kids one Saturday and let them work with some clay and then he cast those little things that they made in bronze for them.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that’s great. That’s sweet.

Well, we’re winding down here and I want to come to where I ended in the introduction, which is just it seems to me that, well, let’s put it this way. If I were in charge, and I’m clearly not, we would be, we, the country, the government, the national government, we would be just pouring funding into the arts. I mean, theater, music, painting. You name it. We’re not. I think they’re essential always, but maybe more essential now. Just in general, what’s your case for art and art history? Why care about it? Why go to an art museum? Why go to the Hillstrom?

Donald Myers:

Yeah. Well, a couple of things. One is my own experience is that an artwork can really just stop you dead in your tracks, and be an incredibly formative experience. I know I’ve had opportunities to look at works that have just been amazing to me. I think that art has the power to inspire and console and to enrich people, and when you make art you as the artist can do that. You can console, you can inspire, you can enrich. And when you study art, that allows us into that benefit and allows us to understand the communicative aspect of art. I don’t think that we’re really human without art and the arts.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly.

Donald Myers:

I think that the impetus to create beauty is maybe not hardwired into people, but it’s certainly present. If you look back at any past society, you’ll find it.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I think when I think about it, it reflects… Maybe as you say, we have to do art as human beings and also I think it just humanizes us, for all the reasons you mentioned. I still have… Go ahead.

Donald Myers:

I was just going to say there’s a great quote from Kurt Vonnegut; he says about the arts in general that they’re a very human way of making life more bearable.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Donald Myers:

And practicing an art is a way to make your soul grow.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that’s beautiful.

Donald Myers:

I like that very much.

Greg Kaster:

That’s fantastic, yeah. That’s all true. I’m so grateful to my art history teachers when I was an undergrad at Northern Illinois University. I can picture them both, and in one case smell the cologne of the other. So Miss Merritt, and she had her hair in a bun and I was just enthralled listening to her, and of course the slides, and then Mr. Liakos, a Greek American. He was from Greece and was always in a really nice suit and reeking of this strong cologne, but oh my God, brilliant. And just I’m so grateful for it, and probably took them as gen ed courses, right? I’m sure.

Donald Myers:

Yeah, probably.

Greg Kaster:

But I’m so grateful. And when you said the Armory Show, well that’s one of the things I learned from Miss Merritt, about the Armory Show. And I’m grateful to you too, Don, for all that you’re doing and your staff, for Gustavus and for the Hillstrom. For me, it’s made Gustavus an even more special place, to have the Hillstrom there. My only, I’m sure you feel the same way, if only it could be even bigger. Maybe one day. Not as a result of a tornado.

Donald Myers:

Yeah. [crosstalk 00:57:21]

Greg Kaster:

We don’t need that again. Yeah. But best of luck with everything.

Donald Myers:

Thank you.

Greg Kaster:

Look forward to seeing not only the Davies but what’s forthcoming, and urge listeners to do the same. So thank you so much, really appreciate this. Take good care.

Donald Myers:

Thank you, Greg.

Greg Kaster:

You’re quite welcome. Bye bye.

Donald Myers:

Bye.

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing, Gustavus graduate Will Clark, class of ’20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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