The Art of Giving

In late December, a rather unusual email came across my computer screen from one of my professional colleagues, Carolyn Jones, at the Minnesota Private College Council. As the name implies, the MPPC, led by Saint John’s University alumnus, Paul Cervenik ‘81, exists to support the vitality of Minnesota’s private colleges, and Saint John’s is one of the 17 member colleges.

“I received a call from a woman who has two Salvador Dali lithographs she would like to donate,” Carolyn wrote. “Would Saint John’s be interested in this artwork?’’

My initial reaction was that Saint John’s would be extraordinarily fortunate to receive prints from the renowned Spanish surrealist painter and printmaker.  However, just to be sure, I contacted the curator of our art collections, Br. Alan Reed.  

“I would think they would add breadth to the Arca Artium collection,” replied Br. Alan, “especially since the collection is not as heavily represented in ‘modern’ art and not at all with examples of surrealist art. If they are examples of Dali’s religious imagery, they can be read as either sarcastic or religious, which would make them more valuable as educational pieces.”

The next day Fr. Eric Hollas and I happened to be in the Twin Cities, so we arranged to pick up the lithographs from the couple wishing to donate them.  Curiously, the couple had no connection with Saint John’s.  They simply wanted to ensure that these works of art ended up with an institution that would care for them long term and use them for educational purposes.

Upon seeing the prints, Fr. Eric and I were convinced that the right decision had been made.  The lithographs – Helen of Troy and Return of Ulysses – were striking.  Each was a limited edition print signed by Salvador Dali.  There were purchased forty years earlier when the couple lived in Toronto, Canada.  In recent years, the lithographs were displayed in their home in Chaska, but a house renovation resulted in some necessary downsizing.

These lithographs have since been added to the Arca Artium collection at Saint John’s University, which is curated by the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library.  Arca Artium, “Ark of the Arts,” is a collection of books, artwork and other artifacts that provide resources for exploring the creative interplay between religious expression and artistic endeavor. It began as the working collection of Br. Frank Kacmarcik, a claustral oblate of Saint John’s Abbey.

The core of Arca Artium is a library containing more than 30,000 volumes, concentrating on the book and graphic arts, biblical and liturgical art, and design especially as they relate to religious ceremony, and monastic history and heritage.  

The Arca Artium art collection includes more than 4,000 fine art prints, drawings and calligraphic specimens, including works by some of the great masters:  Rembrandt, Dürer, Picasso, Chagall, Rouault, Renoir, Matisse, and now, Dali.

One of the many benefits of the new Library and Learning Commons at Saint John’s is that it includes secure, climate-controlled storage space for the Arca Artium collection, as well as display space in the building to exhibit art objects. 

“Special collections are one of the most distinctive features of our library services at Saint John’s,” said Kathy Parker, director of library services. “The renovated Library and the new Learning Commons will allow us to exercise stewardship over primary sources that may serve as the subject of scholarly work and as a source of inspiration to students and faculty.”

On its surface, it may seem that a gift like this simply fell from the sky… what we refer to in development as a “blue bird.”  However, it is worth considering that this gift was far from accidental.  On the contrary, it is the result of decades of relationship-building with organizations like the Minnesota Private College Council that made the referral to us, as well as reputation-building – Saint John’s is widely known in Minnesota and beyond for its preeminent fine art and book collection.  So, I guess we shouldn’t be entirely surprised that Dali’s Helen of Troy and Return of Ulysses would find a suitable home in Collegeville.  It’s simply a matter of the fine art of giving.