You spot it down the hallway, past the plaster casts. You wonder what kinds of artworks abound behind the two glass doors. You approach and read the lettering over the entrance: “The Julia Matthews Wilkinson Center for Prints and Drawings,” and the H-E-B Study Room. Great! You are pumped to see some prints and drawings. You open the door, step inside, and…where are they?
This is the Wilkinson Center, which contains curatorial offices, a small library, and a study room for, yes, prints and drawings. Occasionally these works of art will be displayed in special exhibitions, but most of the time, the museum keeps them in storage. Why wouldn’t curators want to keep these works on display all year round? Because they need special protection.
“These works are like textiles,” says Kristin Holder, the Print Room Manager at the Blanton, “They are very vulnerable to light, humidity, and temperature.”
Light hardens the fibers in the paper and makes the artwork more vulnerable to breakage, deterioration, and discoloration. Therefore, museums must provide special treatment for prints and drawings, keeping them in a cool, dark place for storage.
But what’s the point of art if it just sits in boxes, never to be seen by a human eye? We agree, so the print study room was born to solve that problem. The Wilkinson Center offers free art-viewing appointments in the H-E-B Study Room to any member of the public.
“We have one of the most active study rooms in the country, with about 2,500 visitors a year,” says Francesca Consagra, the Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings, and European Paintings. “This is extraordinary, especially since our visitors are divided almost equally between university and non-university audiences.”
Kristin manages appointments in the print room and serves as the facilitator between visitors and the collection. Visitors contact her, tell her what they’re interested in seeing, and she pulls works from storage based on the information provided. Some visitors come with a particular work or artist in mind, but others may simply be interested in seeing artworks related to a certain topic. For example, a recent visitor was researching human rights and sought a cover image for his book, and another group of visitors, a class in the nursing program at the University of Texas, were researching HIV.
Kristin says that professors often visit the center with their students to provide visual aides for understanding.
“Professors want to get students to read an object like they would read a book,” Kristin says. “You can tell a whole story around one image.”
Though UT students are the most frequent guests in the print room—they made up 44% of all the room’s visitors in 2014—our fastest-growing group is K-12 students and teachers from Austin. 23% of visitors last year were K-12 students, and 9% were involved in K-12 teacher training.
Kristin says that classes in the print room often give students an opportunity to have a voice and chance to express themselves thanks to the ability to interact closely with the works of art.
Other visitors to the print room include scholars, artists, art students, museum professionals from outside institutions, and individuals with an interest in certain artists, works, or topics.
“Our full-time staff is comprised of two artists and two historians,” Francesca says, “And we all love looking at wonderful and meaningful works of art with anyone who wants to learn and to think creatively in an intimate setting.”
If you’re interested in viewing artwork in the study room, please email Kristin Holder at Kristin.firstname.lastname@example.org or give her a call at 512-471-9208.
Jeana Bertoldi is the assistant to the senior curator of prints and drawings, and European paintings at the Blanton Museum of Art. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin and a bachelor’s in English with a minor in photography from the University of Nevada, Reno.