by Mitchell Kirk
When the Peru Community Schools Art Gallery has its grand opening Sunday, visitors will have the opportunity to experience a collection of art made up of more than 150 pieces that has been 75 years in the making.
The collection includes a lithograph by Georges Braque, a French artist who developed the style of Cubism along with Pablo Picasso. Also on display will be a piece by the famous American impressionist William Merritt Chase. Pottery from China, Korea and Japan dating from 215 BC to the 19th century will be featured as well.
How did this trove of art end up at a small-town public high school? As the gallery’s curator Connie Cutler will tell you, it’s quite a story.
It all started in 1938, when Peru High School graduate G. David Thompson moved to pursue a career in the steel industry in Pittsburgh, where he ultimately found success owning four steel companies.
“Along the way, he was always a collector of art,” Cutler said. “He always had ties to Peru and always thought Peru turned him around and put him in the right direction.”
In the late 1940s, Thompson began donating paintings to the school, which were hung on display on the walls of the building. Other artists and art patrons started donating as well. When the current high school was built in 1971, space to serve as a gallery for the paintings was included, but only had enough room to display a few at a time.
By the 1970s, the school had collected more than 150 works, Cutler said, 75 to 80 of them coming from Thompson.
It wasn’t just paintings Thompson sent the school. At one point, he was moved to donate art of a different medium after corresponding with a Peru High School teacher who told him his students were working on ceramics.
“Lo and behold, a few months later, a big crate showed up on the doorstep filled with over 50 pieces of Asian pottery,” Cutler said. “At that time, when China’s doors were closed, it was quite a collection.”
When the Asian pottery specialist at the Indiana Museum of Art at the time visited to observe the collection, Cutler said he was so impressed he asked if the works could be displayed at the museum, where they remained for most of the 1970s.
The years went by and most of the pieces were only being pulled out of storage by teachers every once in a while to show students examples of different techniques.
Last year, the Peru Community School Board decided it was time to take the art out of storage by appropriating a $250,000 bond issue to a develop a space to showcase the works, complete with walls and lighting to aid in the presentation of the paintings, high ceilings, wooden floors and a heating, cooling and humidity system to aid in the paintings’ preservation.
“They appropriated money, in this day and age of cutting of the arts, so now we have a beautiful permanent gallery,” Cutler said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to display works of art that have been hidden in storage for years and years and years.”
Charles Brimbury, superintendent of Peru Community Schools, said preserving the arts in schools is something very important to him.
“I said three years ago when I became superintendent that Peru Community Schools will excel academically,” he said. “Our culture will be a kid-first culture. We will protect and enhance fine arts that maybe other school districts have made economic decisions on.
“Schools must be about critical areas kids need. I’m so proud kids can commit to fine arts and appreciate our wonderful program. It’s a beautiful art gallery with an unbelievable collection that now can be appreciated by all.”
The gallery’s grand opening will be 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday at its location in Peru High School, 401 N. Broadway, Peru. Admission is free. A spring concert featuring high school bands in the area will be 2 p.m. in the school’s auditorium, just down the hall from the gallery.
After the grand opening, Cutler said the gallery will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the first and third Saturdays of the month. She asks that visitors contact her at 765-475-2421 or firstname.lastname@example.org before arriving so she can let the reception desk at the high school know to expect them.
Mitchell Kirk is a staff reporter at the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at 574-732-5130 or email@example.com.
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