Retiring museum director has more work to do

On display
– What: “The Acquisitions Exhibition: 2001-2009”
– When: Through July 12
– Where: University of Mississippi’s University Museum, Oxford
– Info: (662) 915-7073

Leave Theora alone
When Albert Sperath arrived as director of the University of Mississippi’s University Museum, an exhibition of Theora Hamblett’s tree paintings was on display.
“I took it down,” Sperath said with a slight shake of his head.
He soon learned the error of his ways. A crowd of people voiced their displeasure.
“Oxonians love to bring people to show these really well-loved paintings by an Oxford artist,” he said.
Sperath retires on June 30, and you better believe Hamblett’s paintings are on display.

By M. Scott Morris
Daily Journal
OXFORD – For the past eight years, something much like Christmas has arrived several times a year for Albert Sperath.
“You have an exhibition that arrives. You have an inkling of what’s in it because you’ve seen the catalogue,” said Sperath, director of the University Museum and Historic Houses for the University of Mississippi. “The box arrives. You and the staff start unloading the boxes and it’s like Christmas.”
Those boxes could contain work by an established master, or something from an up-and-coming artist who needs a jumping off point.
“I enjoy sharing the past with people because every piece of art is from the past, one way or the other. Some of it is from the recent past,” Sperath said. “I enjoy sharing the spoils of human endeavor.”
This is transition time for the 65-year-old. On June 30, he’ll leave the director’s office to the next warm body.
The University Museum currently features art that was bought, donated or otherwise acquired since 2001, when Sperath came to Ole Miss.
“It’s a chance to step back and get an overview of what we’ve done,” he said. “You could categorize it as a legacy. It’s only an 8-year legacy, but it’s a legacy.”

History lesson
In preparing for the acquisitions exhibition, Sperath was surprised how many pieces dealt with Mississippi’s civil rights’ history.
A work by Lyman Magee includes tear gas canisters picked up in 1962 after the riots that erupted when James Meredith enrolled as the first black student at Ole Miss.
A Philadelphia, Pa., native, Sperath remembers television, newspaper and magazine coverage of the turmoil.
“When I came here, I saw that time in far greater depth,” he said. “I learned more about the student who was killed and the French journalist who was killed. It happened about a quarter of mile from my office.”
Magee’s piece, as well as work by G. Ray Kerciu, Mel Roman and others, dig into painful memories, but Sperath said artists aren’t required to make people feel comfortable.
“That art is important for us to see and collect,” he said. “We remember where we started and where we’ve come to over the last 40 or 50 years.”
Sperath estimated that about 20 percent of the acquisitions over the past eight years have concerned civil rights. In addition, there are pieces by Georgia O’Keefe, William Dunlap, John McCrady, James Eloby and dozens more.
“There are a few things that I found for the exhibition that I had forgotten about,” he said. “I rediscovered them.”

Work to do
Soon, it will be up to someone else to decide what stories get told at the University Museum.
In retirement, Sperath and his wife, Linda, plan to travel to Hawaii, where he was stationed with the Navy in the late ‘60s.
“It will be a nostalgic trip,” he said. “This will be my first time to go back.”
At home in Oxford, he’ll have work to do. Sperath is a sculptor, and he expects to be busy in the 20-foot by 20-foot studio at his house.
“Some of the best artists in the world didn’t start until they were 40. I want to go into the studio and make some more stuff, and hopefully have enough to have an exhibition,” he said. “My wife said I can’t bring any more art into the house. I have to sell it or give it away. We’ll see how that turns out.”
He combines found objects to create movable art. “African Rain,” which was made with wood, acupuncture needles and porcupine quills, won an award from the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art. Other sculptures have incorporated logs, antlers and wire. One features whiskers from the Speraths’ cats that have died over the years.
“I don’t want people to walk up and say, ‘Ah, that’s nice.’ If they say, ‘I hate that’ or ‘I love that,’ then I’ve succeeded,” Sperath said. “I don’t want it to be nice. I want them to come away disappointed or happy.”
In a little more than a week, he’ll have a lot more time to create work that amazes or annoys.
“For the past year, it was one of those ephemeral things: I quit work on June 30,” he said. “It’s now becoming a reality.”

Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or scott.morris@djournal.com.

M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal