Care for Art Tells the Tale

August 1, 2004

Mary Ann Travis
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Atala. The name rolls liltingly off the tongue. In the neo-classic American sculpture Atala and Chactas, a Man--Chactas--removes a thorn from the bare foot of a woman--Atala.

artRandolph Rogers created these Native American figures in Italy in 1854. Tulane has had this "monumental, unique" marble sculpture in its possession for more than 100 years.

It arrived on campus in 1889, a gift from Virginia Montgomery in honor of her husband, R.W. Montgomery.

Atala and Chactas is one among many "interesting, beautiful things" that Tulane has in its art Collection--and Thomas Strider has concerns about the long life of all of them. Strider is the new registrar for university collections.

The preservation and care of university-owned art and artifacts are in his hands. Every piece has a story.

For instance, Strider tells how Francois Rene Chateaubriand's 1801 French novel Atala inspired Rogers, an American sculpting in Rome. In the book, the half-white Atala falls in love with the son of a chief from an enemy tribe. The star-crossed lovers are doomed. Atala has made a vow of chastity and, in the end, takes her own life.

This novel, based on material Chateaubriand gathered during travels to America, greatly shaped 19th-century French fanciful views of life in America. It's a romantic story, but a more important story for Tulane is how and why Montgomery donated Atala and Chactas to the university.

Strider is on the trail of that tale. Strider came to Tulane in March from the Jersey City Museum in Jersey City, N.J. As collections manager there, he oversaw the care and display of the museum's 10,000-piece collection of American art and artifacts.

At Tulane, Strider's preservation Expertise--as well as his detective Prowess--will be tested in Louisiana's heat and humidity. A database of the university art collection exists. Strider is learning about it and adding more objects to it as he inventories artwork that includes important Southern regional artists, French painters such as Hippolyte Sebron and Jean Joseph Vaudechamp and a small collection of 19th-century, neoclassic American sculpture, with Atala and Chactas as the most significant piece. Most of the art objects in Tulane's collection were gifts to the university. But there is no such thing as a free gift, says Strider.

"We are responsible for storing and caring for objects in perpetuity."

For the university to properly care for its art collection, it must protect pieces from the slow but insidious damage of light, temperature and humidity, says Strider. Cataclysmic events like floods and fires cause, well, cataclysmic harm, but day-to-day handling and display also inexorably take their toll on art.

"Changes are gradual," says Strider. A watercolor may hang in an office under florescent lights or be daily struck by sunlight. "It looks the same to you everyday. You don't notice the subtle losses of pigment."

Strider says he'd be happy to consult with anyone on campus who has Tulane art anywhere. "It makes the university look good to take care of what is has," he says. And people are more likely to give more gifts of art if they know the university appreciates and cares for what it has.

The Newcomb Art Gallery has the role of guardian to the university art collections. Strider reports to Erik Neil, director of the gallery. He also reports to Anne Banos, chief of staff and vice president.

Banos says, "We're thrilled to have him. We think it's a positive move for us to account for and protect our beautiful art collection so that as many people as possible can have access to it and enjoy it."

Strider is beginning the task of moving valuable art objects long stored in the basement of Howard- Tilton Memorial Library and other campus locations to a secure, climate- controlled storage warehouse that is being outfitted this summer. He's identifying what is most valuable, both monetarily and culturally.

"I would like to think that everybody will work together to give the objects the best possible care. I don't want to paint myself as a big expert. There are a lot of people on campus who deal with art history and historical artifacts. My challenge is to get information to people about collections care."

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