Carthage plans public symposium to introduce major Soviet art collection
Several public events this month at Carthage center on a newly acquired collection of professional artwork depicting scenes and themes from areas under Soviet rule in the 20th century.
Sam and Berry Shoen, longtime supporters of the arts, donated the largest portion of the new collection of oil paintings and drawings from Armenia, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. In total, Carthage received 131 pieces worth $3.8 million.
While he understands the anti-Russian sentiment that has resurfaced in the United States since last year’s invasion of Ukraine, Sam Shoen views this as an ideal teaching moment.
“It’s important for people to understand art in the context it’s created,” he said. “Even under the most oppressive regimes, beauty is created by talented people.”
Titled “Beauty in Expression,” the visual and performing arts symposium will consist of several free events in January on the Carthage campus.
Ray Johnson ’60, a friend of the Shoens, facilitated their connection with the College. Through his Overland Gallery of Fine Art in Minneapolis, Mr. Johnson provided condition reports and cataloged the collection for his alma mater. Two of his clients, Eric Lorentzen and Bob Lavinia, donated additional pieces to Carthage.
The Shoens accumulated a significant collection of representational art after the fall of the Soviet Union, purchasing many pieces directly from the artists or their descendants. At the time, Mr. Shoen’s work with the United States Agency for International Development brought him to Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics.
Although the Soviet regime required professional artists to produce a few state-sponsored propaganda pieces each year for exhibition, he notes that those artists created many other pieces privately that reflected their own artistic vision. Some even found subtle ways to express political opposition through those noncommissioned pieces.
For example, one painting in the new Carthage collection ostensibly shows a Communist Party official returning a membership card to a citizen who had been subjected to “re-education.” But Mr. Shoen points out the purposeful contrast between the citizen who’s framed in light and the party official who’s shrouded in darkness.
Carthage also received a $50,000 gift from the David A. Straz Jr. Foundation to support the new art collection. The funding will help to promote the artwork as an asset to the College, as well as to foster scholarly engagement with it.
In addition to the symposium, faculty in a variety of subjects are identifying other ways to incorporate the artwork into their courses.