Arts & Culture

San Luis Obispo Museum of Art's permanent collection aims to tell story of art on the Central Coast

In the late 1950s, Dorothy Cutter was working on a painting of her husband, Fred, when Arne Nybak — the longtime curator at the San Luis Obispo Art Center — dropped by for a visit.

“Arne Nybak loved that painting,” Cutter said. “And for years he talked about that painting.”

Since it was a large piece, Cutter said, she never hung it in her small Morro Bay home. So it wound up in a rack in her studio.

But Nybak never forgot about it.

“He told them at the Art Center, ‘Make sure that ends up in the permanent collection,’” Cutter recalled.

That permanent collection, which Nybak created, still exists at what is now called the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. The collection, which includes just over 100 pieces — including Cutter’s oil painting, “Fred” — represents local art through the years, said Karen Kile, the museum’s executive director.

“The purpose of the permanent collection is — beyond just scholastically — to preserve the legacy of our visual arts in the Central Coast,” she said.

While the collection was officially acknowledged by the museum’s board of director’s in 1998, Nybak created it years earlier. Nybak, who was the volunteer curator for 32 years until his death in 1999, bought work by artists he considered important. Other pieces were bequeathed to the organization when artists died, and occasionally Nybak would approach artists and ask them to donate significant examples of their work.

That process continues under today’s full-time director, Kile.

“It reflects the area,” Kile said of the collection, which includes sculptures, textiles, ceramics and paintings. “It reflects who we are.”

Some of the work in the collection came from local artists, such as political artist David Settino Scott and plein air painter Libby Tolley. But the collection also includes pieces from artists who have worked or visited here, like Guy Kinnear, a Southern California artist who has exhibited work at the art museum.

“He gave us a piece, very generously from the exhibit we had four years ago,” Kile said.

Some times, artists will simply offer pieces to the collection, Kile said. Other times, she might offer to purchase them or ask them to donate.

Many of the pieces, though, are donated by someone other than the artist. In some cases, the owners are moving to retirement homes or simply don’t have room for the work.

“If it’s under their bed, that’s a crying shame,” Kile said, “because nobody’s looking at it.”

In August, Beverly Cox, of Cambria, donated several postcards by California watercolorist George Post and a 24-by-29-inch serigraph by Corita Kent.

“I’m getting along in years, and I decided it was time I made sure the Corita had a future,” Cox said.

Kent, a former nun, was an internationally known pop artist who debuted her “We Can Create Life Without War” billboards in San Luis Obispo in 1984.

Cox wound up with a Kent painting 15 years ago when a friend moved to an assisted living facility and no longer had room for it. While she has children, Cox — a member of the museum — said she didn’t think they would appreciate the Kent and Post pieces.

“I was very happy to have what I thought was the right home for them,” she said.

Occasionally, Kile said, someone will offer to donate a piece of art that’s more appropriate for another location. One donor, for example, wanted to give the museum a painting of the San Luis Obispo mission from 1782.

“That one really belongs at the mission,” Kile said. “If it’s a painting of the mission, and they’ve got a museum — and this was done by a Franciscan or a Jesuit friar making the trip up and down on mule back to every mission in 1771 — I’d put that in the appropriate place.” The art museum’s collection, she added, dates to the 1930s.

“There are holes in our collection,” she acknowledged. “We need to have more pieces from the ‘80s and the ‘90s.”

While the entire collection — estimated to be worth over $200,000 — is too big to display at once, pieces are often displayed as part of other shows, Kile said. Other times, parts of the permanent collection are exhibits themselves.

Some of the pieces, including several Nybak paintings, are stored in a small room at the museum. Others, like a steel sculpture by Robert Moore and Cutter’s “Fred,” are permanently displayed at the museum.

Cutter, who gave up painting for photography a few years ago, said it’s nice to know her art will remain at the art museum, though her art does live on elsewhere too.

“You know, I sold about 1,200 paintings in my career,” she said.

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