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5 Hidden Gems in Metro Phoenix Museum Collections

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Museums traditionally acquire objects in two ways — via donation or purchase. As a general rule, museums show only 2 to 4 percent of their collections at any given time. That means their vaults are brimming with hidden gems that don't always make it to the gallery floor. We asked five local museums to share a few unique pieces from their collections.  From a 3-D printed object to a local musician's severed head, we've rounded up the most rare, cutting-edge, and just plain quirky objects inhabiting the vaults of Valley museums.

A 3D Printed Silicone and Polyurethane Dress
Museums owe a great deal of acquisitions to their support organizations. One important local group is the Arizona Costume Institute (ACI). Founded in 1966 to support Phoenix Art Museum's Fashion Design Department in the acquisition and preservation of garments and accessories of historical and aesthetic significance, it also promotes appreciation of fashion design through programs and support of the Museum's exhibitions. Recently, ACI, with the guidance of Phoenix Art Museum’s curator of fashion design Dennita Sewell, purchased the museum's first 3D printed object — a silicone covered polyurethane 3D printed dress.

It's known as the “Eleventh” dress and was the finale look from Iris van Herpen’s Fall/Winter 2014 “Biopiracy” collection. Van Herpen collaborated with architect Julia Koerner and Materialise to develop the innovative design and materials. The “Biopiracy” collection is one of van Herpen’s most significant because it demonstrates how cutting-edge technology can be generously incorporated into high-fashion without compromising its style and function. In addition to van Herpen’s creative use of new materials, “Biopiracy” was presented in a shocking visual performance that featured models suspended in vacuum sealed plastic sheets.

Unfortunately, you'll have to wait a few years to see this inventive dress at Phoenix Art Museum. The “Eleventh” dress is now on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in van Herpen’s debut U.S. exhibition, “Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion,” which travels to Phoenix Art Museum in 2018. 

The Severed Head of Alice Cooper (Sort of) 
The Musical Instrument Museum boasts a vast collection of unique instruments from around the world. But for this challenge, the museum offered up a quirky piece of local musical history — a molded severed-head stage prop, complete with bloodied stump at the neck, face paint, and a black wig, crafted in the likeness of Phoenix rocker Alice Cooper.

First known as the Earwigs, the Spiders, and the Nazz, the band Alice Cooper became an international sensation. Formed in Phoenix in 1964, the group soon showed an affinity for the theatrical and the bizarre, ultimately becoming one of the most influential and commercially successful "shock rock" acts. This display, a loan courtesy of Alice Cooper, is featured within MIM's Arizona section and contains objects from various moments in Alice Cooper history. 

A Charles Loloma Bracelet
When we asked Diana Pardue, curator of collections at the Heard Museum, if there were any hidden gems in the collection,  she immediately thought of jewelry, pointing to a particular bracelet. "This is an amazing contemporary work by a groundbreaking jeweler," she writes.  Hopi jeweler Charles Loloma (1921-1991) distinguished his jewelry through unusual interpretations of metalwork techniques and designs and the incorporation of non-traditional materials. This gold bracelet, made in 1975 and on display in the Heard Museum’s Kitchell Gallery, has 148 inlaid stones of turquoise, lapis lazuli, coral, fossil ivory, abalone, shell, ironwood, and other woods.

Phoenix Street Art Originals
Another method of museum collection is by artist donation. A monumental work of art and an icon of the local street art scene recently joined SMoCA’s collection. In May 2015, Lalo Cota and a group of the Valley’s vibrant and nationally recognized street artists — including 21 Rak, Pezer. Kaper, Tyson Krank, J. B. Snyder, Brez (Thomas “Breeze” Marcus), Mes, Fyse, Move, and Gerb — painted out the galleries of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.  The installation included a series of painted fences by the artists in their signature styles that spanned the entire back wall of the museum and wrapped around onto a side wall.

SMoCA director and chief curator Sara Cochran says, “This important acquisition sends a message about our confidence in and admiration for the street art scene in Phoenix and across the Valley. The fence diversifies the history of contemporary art that we can tell through our collection and we are honored to hold it in trust for the community and the region.”

The fence will be brought out for a summer exhibition titled "Public Trust: It’s About What We Do," which will show the public how SMoCA handles and cares for its collection. It will give people a behind-the-scenes look at how the museum will be creating a custom storage apparatus for this newly acquired piece to store safely in the collection vault.

One of Georgia O'Keeffe's First Skull Paintings
In the early 1950s, a local attorney and art collector named Oliver B. James made a donation to the ASU Library of about 150 works that traced the major movements in the history of American art. This eventually formed the basis of ASU Art Museum's founding collection.

Last year, the museum showed selections from James' original donation and traced his efforts to assemble an educational body of work at ASU for the people of Arizona. A standout piece from this original donation is Georgia O'Keeffe's Horse's Skull on Blue from 1930, one of her first skull paintings inspired by her walks in the desert in New Mexico.

Says Heather Sealy Lineberry, associate director and senior curator, "It is a beautiful painting by this legendary modernist contrasting the deep blue of the sky with the landscape found within the bleached white bones." If you're traveling abroad this summer, visit the Tate Modern in London, where the work will be the centerpiece for a major O'Keeffe retrospective. 

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