From the moment I first heard about the MAC's private collection - thousands of pieces not currently on display - I've had this near unbearable itch to sneak over there and dig around in the basement. Or attic. Or deep climate-controlled chambers protected by a state-of-the-art security system, more like.
The MAC's new show, "MAC Collects: Art for the New Millennium," doesn't scratch that itch so much as inflame it.
"There is no way we could showcase everything that we have here," says museum curator Jochen Wierich. "So what we are trying to do here is show off our recent acquisitions and match them with pieces that have been in our collection for years."
Wierich, with the assistance of Gonzaga professor of art Shalon Parker and artist Bradd Skubinna, has put together a show that is both informed and intuitive. "MAC Collects" has a few pieces for hitting the "wow, that's old" factor - namely a pair of recently restored portraits by 17th-century Dutch artist Gysbert van der Kuyl, and an etching by Albrecht Durer. But where the show really shines is in its emphasis on regional history and Northwest art significance. A "ledger book" themed piece by George Flett is hung next to a real ledger book drawing from the MAC's considerable collection of Native American artifacts. One piece, "Gem," depicts a North Idaho mining town with all sorts of Folk Art busy-ness going on - trains pulling into the depot, tiny stick people working, dozens of roads crisscrossing a peak that could be right outside of Wallace. Numerous Native American portraits - including a few portraits by Edward S. Curtis and two oil paintings of Flathead Chief Charlot and his wife - underscore the show with an odd poignancy.
The Northwest's place in 20th-century art is demonstrated by the inclusion of pieces by Northwest Modernists Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan, Carl Morris and Wes Wehr. No show pulled from the archives of a Northwest museum would be complete without them. What's delightful and surprising here is that the curators chose to punctuate the show with some less known regional artists as well as the more familiar names like Harold Balazs, James Lavadour, Alfredo Arreguin and Jim Hodges. In fact, one of the pieces I was most taken by was painted by Inez Hill Bailey, who worked as a nurse at Edgecliff (a tuberculosis hospital that has been closed now for decades). In weirdly buoyant yellows and greens, Bailey depicts a typical mid-century doctor's office scene. Her curved forms and respect for line bring to mind the doodlish works of James Thurber.
Most important the exhibit carries a strong sense of a museum moving forward. While there are enough pieces here to establish the MAC's "museum cred," it's exciting to see works by up-and-coming artists like Beth Cavener Stichter, with her enormous and disturbing black hare sculpture, and painter Michelle Forsyth, who interprets accident scenes found on the Web in a kind of neo-Impressionist mix of paint, geometry and collage. Tiny paper circles in beautiful colors soften the effect of the subject, and the dominant feeling in looking at one of her disaster scenes is not so much "ewwww" as "ohhhhhhh."
It would be impossible for the MAC to drag out everything from the archives. For every piece in the show, I saw three others in the archive room on my walk-through with Wierich that I would have wanted to include. Still, this is an engaging look at a collection that has invented and reinvented itself over the years. It's a must-see for both museum patrons and the public at large.