Transformation is a common theme in art work, a little less common in art museums. But it is happening at the Museum of Art/WSU, and the change is remarkable.

 “No question, the level of quality has gone up by orders of magnitude,” said Gene Rosa, a Moscow artist and professor of sociology at WSU. Calling recent exhibits “excellent,” Rosa said he sees a vision for the museum that wasn’t there previously.

“There has been innovation,” he said. “Nothing radical, but they’ve taken advantage of the resources they have and used them well.”

Chris Bruce, who became director of the museum in 2003, said that is the plan. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, he said, he wanted to build an identity for the museum.

Regional and original
“What can we do well?” Bruce asked himself and his staff when he joined the museum. “Let’s do that!” Not surprisingly, they decided to play to their strength: showcase Northwest cultural resources of national and international distinction.

That decision allowed the staff to deepen relationships formed over the years with local and regional artists of distinction, as well as draw on contacts Bruce developed during his 25 years of experience in the Seattle area, most recently as curator of the Henry Art Gallery.

Bruce also decided that whenever possible the museum staff would organize its own exhibitions. By creating exhibits, rather than renting exhibits that other institutions have created, WSU becomes a producer of new knowledge about art, rather than simply a distributor. And, by creating a companion art book to document the exhibit, the university’s visibility in the art world is further enhanced.

Exhibits of distinction
 “Extending the Artist’s Hand: Sculpture from the Walla Walla Foundry” was the museum’s first-ever trade publication, created to accompany the 2004 exhibit of 31 bronze pieces brought together for the “Jim Dine Sculpture from the Walla Walla Foundry” exhibit. Even as Dine’s Technicolor Heart was generating much discussion on the Pullman campus, his drawings were on exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The Lichtenstein exhibit followed in 2005, with an accompanying book titled, “Roy Lichtenstein Prints 1956-97: From the Collections of Jordan Schnitzer and his Family Foundation.” This summer that WSU-produced exhibit traveled to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon and will continue on to five more museums on the West Coast and in Chicago.

This fall’s exhibit, titled “Art & Context,” features the work of some of the best-known artists of the 1950s and 60s — including Mark Rothko, William DeKooning, Frank Stella, Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol — all from private collections in the Northwest.

In addition to contacts with major collectors, the museum has been bringing in nationally recognized artists, including composer/sculptor Trimpin, whose work was featured during a spring 2006 exhibition. A month after the show closed in Pullman, “The New Yorker” carried a profile of the Seattle artist.