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Priceless book cover

With Blaffer closed for the renovation, we’re committed to offering unique off-site exhibitions and events to keep you engaged. In June, we presented our second installment of the Window into Houston series at 110 Milam Street; be sure to check out Patrick Renner’s window that he created with students from the Young Artist Apprenticeship Program before it closes at the end of September. And speaking of September and unique activities, we have a real treat in store for you this fall. Working with a host of other departments on campus — Law Center, Honors College, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Student Program Board, Alumni Association, and Office of Human Resources — as well as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, KUHF 88.7 FM, the UH School of Theatre, and Dance and Brazos Bookstore, we are thrilled to present two lectures on September 8 by noted art crime detective Robert Wittman. The event is underwritten by Chubb Group of Insurance Companies.

Wittman after saving Goya painting

Robert K. Wittman is the former senior investigator and founder of the FBI’s National Art Crime Team and author of the New York Times best seller Priceless. The son of antique dealers, Wittman was well acquainted with the business of rare, high-priced artworks long before his law enforcement career. In 1988, he brought his knowledge of the art world to the FBI. Assigned to the Philadelphia Field Division, Wittman went into action tracking down stolen art. As documented in Priceless, Wittman has recovered numerous major works of cultural and historical significance. In the process, he also brought a host of criminals to justice. Some of his career highlights include:

  • Recovering $50 million worth of Goya and Brueghel paintings from a Spanish mobster
  • Catching an appraiser turned con man who used PBS’ Antiques Roadshow to steal countless heirlooms from war heroes’ descendants
  • Rescuing the Rodin sculpture that launched the Impressionist movement
  • Recovering the golden armor of an ancient Peruvian warrior king
  • Saving an original copy of the Bill of Rights that had been believed lost for 100 years

Wittman on The Colbert Report

He will present the lecture “Pursuing the Priceless: Stolen Art, Investigation and the Law” at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s Brown Auditorium (1001 Bissonnet. St.) at 7 p.m., September 8. Tickets for this event are $10. Seating is limited. Wittman also will deliver a free lecture to members of the UH community at 9 a.m., September 8 in the university’s Elizabeth D. Rockwell Pavilion (second floor of the M.D. Anderson Library). Admission is free, but tickets and a UH ID are required. Seating is limited; reserved seats will be released five minutes before the lecture for visitors without a ticket. Click here to get tickets. 

Stephen Colbert show Wittman's book on The Colbert Report

Wittman was recently on Comedy Central’s hit satirical news show The Colbert Report. In the episode, host Stephen Colbert asked Wittman about art theft and what it’s like to be an undercover FBI agent. Here are some of Colbert’s laugh-out-loud interview questions:

  • They say it takes a thief; are you a cat burglar turned good?
  • How is art crime committed, because from the movies, you see a grid of lasers and Catherine Zeta Jones… [going through] the grid?
  • So art museums don’t have the giant doors that come closing down and Karari darts that hit you in the neck?
  • Do you ever go into a museum and look at a piece of art and you go, “I could steal that”?
  • Do you have a mustache and a beret … when you go undercover in the art world?
  • So you travel the world? You’re like Rene Russo in The Thomas Crown Affair.

Go to Hulu to see Wittman’s reponses.

Wittman on The Colbert Report

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The end of July was bitter-sweet for the Blaffer staff. Bitter, because it was the final week of work for associate curator Rachel Hooper, a fabulous coworker who left Blaffer to pursue a Ph.D. in art history from Rice University. Sweet, because after months of planning, we were finally embarking on a new chapter in the museum’s history: it was time for us to move offices.

boxes

After the final exhibition at Blaffer — the AAM-sponsored Museum of Broken Relationships— ended in early June, the registration team spearheaded by Youngmin Chung emptied out the museum’s storage facilities. Everything that was to be stored offsite for the duration of the renovation was placed onto large pallets and temporarily stored in Blaffer’s first floor low ceiling gallery. The rest of the galleries and all the storage areas were now empty. The faint sound of footsteps that is normally diffused by the art in the museum now ominously echoed against the bare walls and ceilings. This is how the museum remained until the end of July.

empty storage room

Living in an empty museum was oddly unsettling . No banging of hammers by the construction crew. No drilling into walls by the installation team. No curators running around making last-minute aesthetic changes to the placement of artworks. Pure silence.

Pallets

Most of the staff had packed up their offices by July 28. On the afternoon of Friday, July 29, the IT team from UH’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (CLASS) came by to help us pack up our computers. The move was scheduled for the following Monday, but a delay in the movers’ schedules meant we wouldn’t see most of our belongings until Tuesday. Needless to say, the staff found out first hand how much we depend on our computers.

Wrapped Office

The actual move occurred without incident. Luckily, no tales of damaged office supplies, or worse, broken bones. We are situated in surprisingly large cubicles in one of the many buildings of UH’s Energy Research Park, a section of land alongside the Gulf Freeway about one mile south of UH’s main campus that once housed the offices of Schlumberger’s Houston branch. The one room building we’re in is quite expansive — the cubicles encompass only about a third of the space — and the glossy wood floors and clerestory windows give the interior the look of a dance studio. Last week, we posted a picture on Facebook and half-jokingly asked for the donation of a ping-pong table to help occupy the space. Other ideas have since been generated. A Saturday night discotheque. A roller skating rink. And let’s not forget about Blaffer group yoga.

Setting up the new office

While it’s inherently not convenient to be located away from Blaffer for the duration of the renovation, the space will suit us just fine as we work hard to plan wonderful exhibitions and programs as we move forward with this exciting new phase in the museum’s history. Plus, it’s probably safer for us to be away from the destruction, dust, and debris as the wrecking ball begins knocking down walls at Blaffer. But for those thrill-seekers looking for danger, we’ll host membership tours of the renovation progress; hard hats have already been ordered. Hope you’ll join us for one!

We’re still looking for a ping-pong table, by the way.

Setting up the office

In the winter of 2011, Blaffer Art Museum announced a major $2 million renovation that would be designed by WORK Architecture Company (WORKac). WORKac, based in New York, is celebrated for their sensitivity to the arts, collaborative work ethic, and original and innovative approach to design. Blaffer Art Museum is WORKac’s first commission in Texas and is being developed in partnership with Gensler. In April, guests of the museum’s annual gala — fittingly named “Rock the Casbah: The Wrecking Ball” — were the first to see renderings of what the new space will look like. And now that it’s summer, we’re rapidly moving towards construction. Be on the look-out for the wrecking ball!

[Rendering of the front entrance]

As the inaugural post for this blog, we (the staff) felt the best way to kick off our renovation ramblings would to be show the renderings by WORKac and talk about the some of the new elements coming to our building. The cool new features are:

  • A courtyard cafe and a lounge.
  • A street-side entrance, which will serve as the main staircase to the second floor. When viewed from outside, you’ll be able to partially see through the translucent bands of clear and textured channel glass
  • The addition of an ADA compliant elevator and a restroom (currently visitors have to share facilities with students in the courtyard).

The renovation will also allow for the integration of a studio/classroom for our award-winning Young Artist Apprenticeship Program (currently housed in an off-site trailer), a dedicated gallery for the recently launched project series “First Take,” and the redesign of the courtyard in view of the presentation of art and entertainment which will turn it into a destination for people on and off campus.

[rendering of cafe-side entrance]

According to WORKac cofounder Dan Wood, while designing the staircase above the new entrance, his structural engineer said the cantilevered platform needed an extra bit of support. Rather than a plain column, they added that wedged wall to support the staircase. Wood calls it “the wallumn” (“column + wall”). Not only does it provide support, but it also visually blocks the loading dock to the left. Wood also stated that angles first seen in the wallumn are repeated throughout the design, even in the planned lighting system. In the rendering above, you can see the neon lights zig-zag upon the ceiling, rather than being placed in uniform linear fashion.

Look for these renderings to become a reality next spring!

[rendering of the new courtyard]

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[rendering of cafe-side entrance]