Style, Elegance and Wit:
The Artwork of James Spencer Russell
April 4 through October 12, 2014
Indiana State Museum
This is a post about how the Indiana State Museum’s James Russell retrospective came to to be.
The artist James Spencer Russell of Kewanna, Indiana passed away in November of 2000 leaving over 2,500 pieces of his art in his home. The work was incredibly varied and was made over the course of his life.
After inventorying the work, in 2006, Russell’s estate called upon Dennis Jackson to hold a series of auctions to sell the work. At the auctions everyone that I spoke with about Russell’s work agreed that it was very, very good. The art was sold to several collectors and to some dealers. Among those collectors were Steve Conant and Tom Kuebler, both of Indianapolis and Julie Kern (Satch) of Carmel, Indiana.
Some time after the auctions had concluded a small group of us would get together to look at and discuss Russell’s work. We would always comment how wonderful his work was and that it deserved recognition and maybe even a museum show. After a period of time we received word that the idea of holding a retrospective exhibition was in the works. Satch and I were really happy to hear of this. We were excited that arguably one of Indiana’s greatest modern artists, James Spencer Russell, who was virtually unknown in his home state, would get recognized and the public would have a chance to experience his art.
Over the past three years, out of his personal collection, Steve Conant has made donations to the Indiana State Museum of many works by Russell including drawings, small sculptures, paintings and assemblages. Steve hoped that by having this work in the museum’s collection, the Board of Directors would see the quality of the work and would eventually be more likely to consider the exhibition as a worthwhile undertaking.
Thanks to Steve Conant’s slow but steady urging of Rachel Perry, Fine Arts Curator for the Indiana State Museum, she approached the museum’s committees charged with exploring the feasibility of the exhibition, the idea for “Style Elegance and Wit” came to fruition.
Steve then discussed this with his friend Tom Kuebler and subsequently Tom made a trip to Kewanna to meet Wade Bussert, Russell’s close friend, and to see Wade’s collection of Russell’s work and biographical archive. The connection to Wade Bussert was accomplished previous to this during a visit that Tom and Steve had made to the Midwest Museum of American Art in Elkhart, Indiana. Brian Byrn, the museum’s curator was aware of the Russell estate and suggested Tom connect with Wade.
Sometime later Steve and Tom visited Kewanna to view Wade’s material which Steve later outlined to Rachel Perry and Chris Krok, one of the people involved with the the Indiana State Museum Foundation. This resulted in a trip to Kewanna by Rachel, Steve and Tom.
Tom Kuebler archived and went through the materials regarding Russell’s estate that he received from its executor and Wade Bussert including many photographs, slides and additional material. At this point Tom wrote a monograph, which was presented to the Indiana State Museum that contained a brief history of James Russell and photographs of a selection of his art.
The “exhibit process” at the Indiana State Museum involves presentations to two different committees of peers – an “Exhibit Focus Committee” and the “Leadership Team.” The committees evaluate the feasibility of the exhibition proposal by examining such things as audience, funding, available space, cost of insurance, etc.
Thanks to Rachel Perry’s continued efforts at the Indiana State Museum and the accomplishments of Steve Conant and Tom Kuebler the exhibition has become a reality.
After a long and successful tenure at the Indiana State Museum Rachel Perry has retired. Mark Ruschman has taken the position of Chief Curator of Fine Arts and will be heading up the exhibition’s development and implementation.
There is a ton of work to be done. Additional historical materials have been gathered and are being processed. The next step is to, through historical documentation, reconstitute the incredible life of Indiana artist, James Russell.