In a recent plea for more exhibition space, San Antonio Museum of Art board Chair Ed Hart said the museum’s goal is to “bring the world to San Antonio.”
The new exhibition 40 Years, 40 Stories: Treasures and New Discoveries from SAMA’s Collection not only dusts off some hidden treasures but proves Hart’s assertion on both counts — that SAMA needs more room to show its worldly collection.
Artworks on view in the anniversary exhibition hail from far corners of the globe, including Sierra Leone, South Korea, Myanmar, Iraq, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Roman Ostia, Egypt, England, Honduras, Michoacán, and the Adirondacks in upstate New York.
Most poignantly, the elaborately carved Mende ceremonial mask on view in the show’s second room is just one highlight of the museum’s African collection, currently in storage due to lack of exhibition space.
“We’re really excited to bring this out and share it,” curator Jessica Powers said during a media tour before the show’s public opening Oct 16.
Two intriguing artifacts from the Islamic collection, a rare 10th century parchment Quran fragment and an inscribed carnelian amulet, also hint at the museum’s vast holdings, as that collection went into storage in 2017 when SAMA underwent renovations.
Though the exhibition title focuses on SAMA’s 40 years, the objects on view cover a much wider range of time, from the present day in Celia Eberle’s Moss Grotto installation, from 2016, to a carved female figurine from ancient Mesopotamia estimated to be up to 8,000 years old.
The “40 stories” part of the show title refers to the stories behind each of the 40 objects on view, from how they were first acquired to what goes into preserving and maintaining rare and unique artworks.
“We really want to give visitors a sense of kind of the history of the collection and the formation of the collection, but also what goes into caring for a collection like this,” Powers said.
A large aristocratic portrait by British painter Joshua Reynolds had been in Houston for five years undergoing conservation of the painting and its elaborate gold leaf frame, but Mary, Lady Arundell of Wardour, painted in 1768, is back at SAMA and in the exhibition to demonstrate the significance of caring for such objects.
Local collector Samuel Kress, known in San Antonio for the Kress Building downtown that once housed his department store, amassed a personal collection of 3,000 objects, eventually donating many to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. SAMA is fortunate to have received one important painting from Kress’ collection, an image of the Holy Family painted in Renaissance-era Florence.
“The painting attracted a huge amount of attention when it was given” in the late 1930s, Powers said. “There was lots of news coverage at the time. And I’m really happy to be able to bring it back out of storage.”
40 Years, 40 Stories begins and ends with works relevant to San Antonio: two large-scale alebrijes figures from the Linares family of Mexican sculptors and a portrait by Chicano painter Adán Hernández, who gained fame from the Hollywood movie Blood In, Blood Out, starring Jesse Borrego. Hernández died in May.
40 Years, 40 Stories: Treasures and New Discoveries from SAMA’s Collection is free with regular museum admission and will be on view at SAMA through Jan. 2.