Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Raising funds to preserve priceless paintings in Park Rapids August 27, 2012

BETWEEN NORTHWESTERN MINNESOTA and Chicago, you won’t find another art collection like the Gabor and Edith Nemeth Study Collection dating from the 15th to 19th centuries.

Now that “Old Masters” collection of 42 European paintings owned by the Nemeth Art Center in Park Rapids is in need of a permanent storage unit to preserve the valued art for future generations.

A campaign is currently underway to raise $1,200 for materials to construct a modular custom storage unit that will keep the paintings separated and vertical, thus preventing further damage. As of August 23, the NAC had raised $600 via an online campaign and direct contributions, according to NAC Executive Director Meredith Lynn.

Brian Stieler of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts has volunteered to design and build the storage structure. And representatives of the Midwest Art Conservation Center in Minneapolis have already been to Park Rapids to assess the collection and lay out plans for restoration.

“St. Jerome,” painted by a 17th century follower of Hendrik van Somer, and part of the collection.

About a third of the paintings require restoration, Lynn says, with several in such condition that they can no longer be exhibited. More than 30 of the pieces are continually on display (during the center’s open months from May – September) in the 1900 Victorian style brick courthouse turned art center which opened in 1977.

That was the year the historic and priceless collection of paintings, by students who studied well-known masters like Rembrandt, Rubens and Bosch, came to be owned by the then newly-established North Country Museum of Arts.

European born art restorer and dealer Gabor Nemeth, who came to the U.S. in the 1940s and worked thereafter primarily in Los Angeles, also maintained a home in the Park Rapids area (his primary residence now) and brought his collection to Minnesota in the mid 1970s.

After a three-day January 1977 exhibit of his collection in Park Rapids—a show which drew long lines of some 4,000 people total in the then town of 2,700, according to newspaper reports—Nemeth decided to offer the art to Park Rapids. Conjecture had long been that St. John’s University would be the recipient of the collection (for a reason unknown to Lynn; I asked).

In an article published in the May 2, 1977, issue of the Bemidji-based newspaper, The Pioneer, Nemeth is quoted: “There is really nothing up here as far as art goes. People will appreciate it (the collection) if they are given the chance to see it.”

“Adam and Eve,” a 17th century painting by a student of Cornelisz.

Clearly the people of Park Rapids realized the significance of Nemeth’s offer as 30 families borrowed $35,000 to purchase the paintings, a price “significantly less than the appraised value,” Lynn notes.

She won’t put a value on the paintings today other than to assess it’s “quite high.” Beyond the monetary value, the art center director calls the collection “historic and unique paintings with priceless cultural value.”

Speculation has existed that perhaps the masters themselves may have dipped their brushes into oil or tempera to work on paintings in the collection. The art center lays no official claim to that suggestion, although Lynn says, “…it’s possible that painters such as Rembrandt painted on several of the canvases that we own.”

The identities of whose who painted the pieces as part of a greater studio study setting are primarily lost to history, according to Lynn.

Many of the paintings were originally acquired for Lois Warschaw, an art collector and prominent political figure in Los Angeles, prior to ownership by Gabor Nemeth and his wife, Edith.

Today, as it always has, the Gabor and Edith Nemeth Study Collection centers the Nemeth Art Center, which opened in August 1977 after the Park Rapids community pulled together to purchase the paintings and remodel the courthouse into a center for the arts.

Says Lynn:

New visitors to the Nemeth Art Center are always pleasantly surprised by the beauty and historical relevance of our paintings. Park Rapids is a small town, but the arts community here is growing and hopefully our collection will help raise awareness of the town as an arts destination.

That’s exactly what Gabor Nemeth hoped for 35 years ago—that his collection of Old Masters paintings would draw tourists to this community in northwestern Minnesota. And it does. The collection includes works of biblical scenes like “Madonna and Child,” “Madonna of the Harpies,” “The Holy Family,” “Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane,” “Christ in the Wilderness,” and several genre paintings such as “Kitchen Scene” and “The Card Players.”

Today efforts also focus on preserving the collection via construction of the custom storage unit. With $600 more in contributions (as of August 23), the project can proceed.

But the art center’s goals go well beyond a storage fix. Options are under consideration to move into a handicapped accessible building with more consistent climate control. The center is also working on a seven-year plan to restore the study collection paintings.

Executive director Lynn summarizes the situation and needs:

The Nemeth Art Center is a unique institution, and this collection forms its backbone. Maintaining historic items is important and costly, and the NAC cannot provide the community with something so special without continued help.

“Portrait of a Noblewoman,” an 18th century painting by a follower of Rubens.

IF YOU’D LIKE to contribute to the storage unit fundraising effort, click here to reach the NAC storage unit project campaign on indiegogo.

Or visit the NAC website, by clicking here, for details and contact information.

To read a detailed history on The Gabor and Edith Nemeth Study Collection, click here to a presentation prepared by Steven R. Peterson with grant funding from the Region 2 Arts Council. Thanks to LouAnn Muhm, chairperson of the NAC Board of Directors, for directing me to this presentation, the source for some of the information cited in this post.

Special thanks to NAC Executive Director Meredith Lynn for answering my lengthy list of questions via email.

If you wish to view the Gabor and Edith Nemeth Study Collection, art center hours are from 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, May – September. Each month the NAC also features a curated exhibit of contemporary art in addition to pieces from its permanent collection.

Finally, check out the current “Rembrandt in America” exhibit now showing at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts by clicking here. Perhaps viewing that will inspire you to support efforts to preserve the priceless paintings in Park Rapids.

Images of paintings are courtesy of the Nemeth Art Center