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NEWS: Surplus artwork from St. Louis Public Schools moves to Missouri Historical Society

Originally appeared in St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

ST. LOUIS — The “Man on White Horse” will soon travel from a conference room at St. Louis Public Schools headquarters to the Missouri Historical Society’s collection. The painting by Oscar Berninghaus, a famed St. Louis artist whose works were displayed at the 1904 World’s Fair, is part of a collection owned by the school district. The district is culling some pieces as it closes buildings due to falling enrollment. “It’s a really lovely painting that is very emblematic of that artist’s iconic style — he did a lot of southwest scenes,” said Hattie Felton, senior curator at the Missouri Historical Society, which operates the Missouri History Museum. The historical society’s partnership with SLPS started in 2015 with a donation of artwork, photographs, historic objects including textbooks and teaching aids dating to 1811. The donated collection even included a group of native animals that had undergone taxidermy and were used as a traveling classroom exhibit. The district had been looking for a permanent home for its historical collection since the 2013 closure of Gratiot School, which housed its archives and has since been converted to lofts. Some of the school district’s items were used in the history museum’s recent exhibit “Mighty Mississippi.” After the closure of six school buildings earlier this year, another trove of artwork has become available for community partners.

The Berninghaus painting and two others, by Frederick Oakes Sylvester, who was art director at SLPS’ Central High in the early 1900s and also was showcased at the World’s Fair, will be transferred to the historical society’s permanent collection. Sylvester’s two pieces, one as large as a chalkboard, depict Mississippi River bluffs. The artworks will be cataloged and digitized by the historical society for its online collection, which is open to the public for research. “I hope to see them one day go on exhibit,” Felton said. “Having these pieces by Sylvester and Berninghaus really enrich our fine art collection, build on the strength we have in local and regional artwork and add depth to representation of the incredible artists that were working here around the turn of the century.” Their artwork hung on the walls of St. Louis schools designed by revered architect William B. Ittner. Ittner’s schools are known for their natural lighting, open spaces, high ceilings and intricate brick exteriors. Art collectors in St. Louis donated pieces to the district, which also once had a budget for artwork. The district has shuttered dozens of buildings since 2000, as enrollment has dropped. Last year, it fell to 18,248 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, from a peak of more than 115,000 in the late 1960s.

The district is still looking for suitable partners for its surplus paintings, including the potentially valuable “Yacht Harbor” by Kentucky artist Frank Duveneck, said John Grapperhaus, coordinator of visual arts curriculum at SLPS. “Selling them off was never brought to my attention as an option,” Grapperhaus said. “It’s been more desirable to work with our community partners to support our city, and share the artwork in a way that is meaningful to other institutions.”


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