Almost Lost Art

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As I prepare for my first solo-curated exhibition at the Indiana State Museum, Style, Elegance & Wit: the Artwork of James Spencer Russell opening on Friday, April 4th, the Museum marketing department has been in full swing, sending out press releases and drumming up interest from the statewide media. For my part, I'm making the rounds promoting the exhibit; most recently on WFYI's Art of the Matter with Travis DiNicola. Joining me on the program were local collectors and Russell aficionados Julie and Ron Kern.

James Russell's fascinating life story and amazing body of work would have been lost forever, except for a handful of local collectors who had the good fortune of stumbling across his artwork at a local auction house (Jacksons Auction & Real Estate Company) back in 2006. Without knowing anything about the artist and trusting only their eye for quality work, they purchased the majority of his works being offered for sale. In doing so, this small group of collectors laid the foundation for what would become the exhibition the museum is preparing to open in April. 

Russell was born in Monticello, Indiana, in 1915 and lived for a short time in neighboring Kewanna, Indiana, before moving to New Mexico. He made his name as an artist in New York City in the 1950s and '60s, alongside some of the biggest names in the Pop Art movement: Jasper Johns, Louise Nevelson, Roy Lichtenstein and countless other prominent artists of the day. At the pinnacle of his career, he did an about-face and returned to Kewanna, living in obscurity until his death in 2000.

Mark Ruschman presents James Spencer Russell’s self-portrait to the Indiana Art Advocates group at the Indiana State Museum. - INDIANA STATE MUSEUM
  • Indiana State Museum
  • Mark Ruschman presents James Spencer Russell’s self-portrait to the Indiana Art Advocates group at the Indiana State Museum.

As a museum curator, I'm often asked how exhibits are chosen. Truthfully, ideas and opportunities come to my attention in many ways. Extensive research of historical and contemporary Indiana artists can be the catalyst for selecting a particular exhibition. The Museum's own fine art collection is frequently the focus of a show. But I also rely on a variety of outside sources for information and input. In the case of Russell exhibition, four collectors who shared a passion for an unknown artist proved to be the driving force behind this endeavor.

Julie and Ron Kern, Steven Conant and Tom Kuebler were the individuals responsible for bringing Russell's story to light. They approached then Museum fine arts curator, Rachel Perry, with the artist's artwork and story. After a thorough vetting process, she pitched the proposal to museum staff and won its support to host the exhibition. Upon her retirement in 2011, I gladly picked up the baton. Tom Kuebler sadly passed away before the exhibit could be realized, but the Kern's have continued to assist with invaluable research and the loan of key works of art for the exhibit. Steven Conant has also been extremely supportive in the lending of artwork and generous support for the exhibition catalog.

With the help of these individuals and significant loans by several other prominent Indiana collectors, Style, Elegance & Wit: the Artwork of James Spencer Russell will chronicle the life and art of this important Indiana artist, introducing his work to a whole new generation of art enthusiasts. This rare opportunity was made possible not only through the hard work and dedication of the Indiana State Museum staff, but the commitment of a handful of collectors who believed the story of this amazing artist deserved to be told.

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