ESSAYS ON ART > Robert Murray: Working Models
The Working Models: Sculpture by Robert Murray
at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau
On March 31, 2017, The Working Models: Sculpture by Robert Murray opened at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. The show includes the working model and a selection of works on paper relating to the proposal and fabrication of Murray’s Nimbus, 1978. The exhibition also presents seven other small sculptures dating from 1969 to 2016; these working models are both finished works in their own right and also proposals for large-scale sculptures. Taken together, they offer an excellent overview of Murray’s prolific work over the last sixty years, and it was gratifying to see Nimbus recognized as an important partof the museum’s collection.
The working models, which number more than three-dozen, have been exhibited together in different groupings since 1983, when they were first presented at Phillips Exeter Academy. They have travelled to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, in British Columbia, the Centro Culturale Canadase, in Rome, and the Delaware Art Museum, among other venues. They provide the opportunity to consider a body of work that could not otherwise be brought together, given the challenges of moving and exhibiting large-scale sculptures.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Nimbus’s commission, and the sculpture has had quite a complicated history. In 1977, the National Endowment for the Arts provided a matching grant to the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Alaska Court System to commission a sculpture for a new state court building in Juneau. A committee made up of curators, local professionals, and the architect of the new courthouse assembled to select an artist, and they unanimously chose Robert Murray. Murray had been building large-scale sculptures for nearly twenty years, and had received commissions for outdoor public works in the United States and Canada. He visited Juneau several times, met with members of the community, and toured the area. Nimbus was installed in the spring of 1978.
In spite of such an auspicious start, opposition to began to build against the sculpture that fall, led by a few local politicians who flatly stated that they didn’t like modern art. After several contentious years, and despite a good deal of support for the sculpture, the politicians attached a rider calling for its removal to an otherwise popular bill, and Nimbus was de-installed in 1984.The NEA did nothing to protect the sculpture, and Nimbus languished in storage for the next six years.
In 1990, Bruce Cato, then chief curator at the Alaska State Museum, arranged to acquire Nimbus as a significant historical artifact—Alaska’s most controversial work of art. Chief Justice Robert Boochever, one of the original supporters of the sculpture, and a group called Friends of Nimbus raised money for the new installation, and a dedication ceremony took place in June 1991.
Last summer, Nimbus was re-sited in a prominent location in front of the new museum building, the Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff State Library, Archives and Museum. Robert Banghart, former deputy director, worked directly with Robert Murray and Donald Lippincott, the fabricator of the sculpture, to repair the damage from the original de-installation, and the piece has been completely restored for its new location. The new building opened to the public on June 6, 2016, and the sculpture was, quite literally, at the center of these celebrations.