Pueblo Revival architect John Gaw Meem built UNM's Jonson Gallery in 1950 to serve as both an exhibit space and residence for Raymond Jonson, the famed painter who had just become the university's first (and only) permanent artist-in-residence. Few artists have played such a prominent role in the creative history of our state, and Jonson finally had an ideal space to continue his audacious experiments in color and geometry.
With living quarters upstairs and studio, gallery, office and storage rooms downstairs, the building was praised as a “monument to modern art” when it first opened. Jonson retired from teaching in 1954, but maintained a strong relationship with UNM by hosting gallery functions at his residence and by bequeathing his collections and the Jonson Gallery itself to the university. When Jonson died in 1982, the gallery became part of the University Art Museum.
Jonson created about 2,000 artworks during his lifetime. Six-hundred of these pieces are stored at the gallery. According to the venue's website, “Before his death, Jonson ensured that the gallery and the collections would continue to function in a similar manner of his original vision and would become the property of the citizens of New Mexico.”
The Alibi has learned, however, that the Jonson Gallery will be moved from the building. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently gave an $18.5 million endowment to UNM to create the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy. The center will recruit Ph.D students nationally who are interested in studying health policy, supplying them with generous fellowships to fund their research. The center will be housed in Raymond Jonson's old residence. Not everyone is thrilled about this.
“Albuquerque has no sense of history, and this is just one more example of that,” says Kim Arthun, a former UNM art student who is one of the founders of Exhibit 208, a gallery close to campus. “I remember when they wanted to tear down the KiMo in the early ’70s. People railed against it as a waste of money. 'Let's tear this thing down.' The Alvarado was the same way, and now this. It's just so shortsighted.”
Christopher Mead, the dean of UNM's College of Fine Arts, is on vacation in Nova Scotia and couldn't be reached for comment, but Associate Dean Jim Linnell insists the move works out well for everyone: “The foundation needed a building, and moving the Jonson Gallery closer to the University Art Museum in the center of campus will give it greater visibility. There's a planning process underway to sort out how to reorganize space within the museum.”
Deputy Provost Richard Holder says the university has wanted to combine the Jonson collection with the Art Museum for many years. “Storage in the Jonson Building is substandard in terms of humidity and temperature control,” he says. Holder adds that the Jonson building's historic importance was a factor that was weighed carefully by UNM's space allocation committee, but ultimately it was decided that the atmosphere for the paintings wasn't good enough, and the cost of modernizing the building to properly house the collection was prohibitive. “The gift from Raymond Jonson was examined carefully, and it doesn't require that the collection remain in the home. We're very respectful of the Jonson collection, though, and this decision is not in any way intended to be disrespectful toward that wonderful art.”
Chip Ware, the Jonson Gallery's curator, sounded a little apprehensive about how the move would play out, but he agreed with Holder that the plan could be beneficial. “We really aren't too sure what's going on at this point,” says Ware. “There are a lot of dominoes yet to fall, so we can't really say what the future holds.”
Still, he points out that the description of Jonson's intent on the website is misleading. “Back when that was written,” he says, “they were worried about the building being town down to create a parking lot.” Ware says Jonson always realized that some day the gallery would be inadequate to house his collection. “We'll have a larger exhibition space in the Center for the Arts, picking up another three- to four-hundred square feet. We'll also have better storage for the collection.”
Ware says it will be more efficient having the University Art Museum and the Jonson Gallery under one roof. He also expects the gallery will have more visitors in the center of campus than it currently does on its northern fringe. “All in all,” he says, “it's sad to think we're leaving a historic building that was erected by Jonson as his living space and gallery, but the advantages outweigh that issue. I'm not disappointed.”
Yet many in the local arts community are disappointed. “We need to support the idea of preserving historical buildings and their functions into the future,” says Ralph Greene, art professor at CNM, pointing out that there's no way to ensure that the university's promises regarding the Jonson Gallery will be upheld.
Arthun agrees. “It's important to keep pressure on them to make sure they do what they say they're going to do,” he says. “My gut feeling right now is that the Jonson will be a diminished thing. It's all just talk now.”