Melissa Merli: Local artist sending works to Springfield

Melissa Merli: Local artist sending works to Springfield

If you've ever visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library, you know it doesn't have much space to exhibit original and other art, other than the small Illinois Gallery.

But that doesn't prevent artists from donating their works to the museum and library, as Champaign artist Siti Mariah Jackson recently did.

She gave the popular facility in the state capitol six paintings from her series "Where We Terms of Time."

Their subject matter focuses on Abraham Lincoln, the civil rights movement and other aspects of American history. Gary Stockton, acquisitions archivist for the museum and library, picked up the works this past week.

Jackson also gave the museum-library a set of eight prints by her late husband, Billy Morrow Jackson, that focus on the civil rights movement.

After Siti Mariah Jackson contacted The News-Gazette about the museum acquiring her work, I became curious about its acquisitions policies. So I called and chatted with Stockton and James Cornelius, Lincoln curator for the museum-library.

It often receives offers of art, some professional, some amateurish, that relates to Lincoln or his era or Illinois history. They turn down roughly half of the offers, mainly because the work might not fit into the collection, is too large, is amateurish or the donor asks for certain restrictions.

"Another consideration would be the condition of the piece," Stockton said. "We don't have the facilities here to do much in terms of restoration and repair of artwork and to contract that out can be expensive."

And, Cornelius said: "We cannot and do not ever promise anybody either by purchase or donation that we will display their work. We're not an art gallery. We generally show original historic artifacts from Lincoln's lifetime."

There might come a time, Cornelius said, when the museum-library mounts a show of the artworks purchased by or given to the museum. But there are no plans now for such an exhibition.

"The museum was not designed to hang paintings," Cornelius said, adding that the Illinois Gallery is about the only place to show art.

The current exhibition there — I saw it several weeks ago — is "Pilgrimage," featuring more than 70 Annie Leibovitz photographs from the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection. That traveling exhibition, which features non-portraits by the famous photographer, runs through Aug. 31.

Cornelius said the museum-library's permanent collection, which he oversees, has 52,000 items related to Lincoln, including books, manuscripts, newspapers and photographs. The number of paintings is much smaller, 100 to 120. The majority were donated.

Several, though, came from the Taper Collection, one of the largest collections of Lincoln artifacts in private hands. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library Foundation purchased the collection in 2007 from Louise Taper, a historian and Lincolnia collector who lives in Beverly Hills.

She's still collecting, Cornelius said.

The more common art donations from contemporary artists are their prints "so they can say they have an example of their work in our collection," Cornelius said.

"It looks good on a resume," Stockton said, "and can be vindication that their work is of some quality."

Other reasons artists donate their work to museums and other institutions, according to Stockton, is to have it preserved and last beyond their lifetimes.

Also, for tax deductions — but the IRS imposes a lot of rules on artists who try to deduct donations of their art.

"We're not allowed as a representative of the receiving institution to give the donor an appraisal of the work," Stockton said. "We can't appraise — they have to have it appraised. This comes up frequently.

"We always tell folks you can go ahead and give it to us and still have it appraised. You can have whoever you hired contact us to make arrangements to examine it here."

Stockton said Jackson did not bring that issue up when she donated her paintings to the museum-library.

The offers of artworks to the Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library come from artists everywhere, not just Illinois, Stockton said.

He gave two examples: An artist in China gave a Lincoln sculpture. And a South Korean artist donated a copy of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address that the artist had copied — in Korean calligraphy.

Of course, most of the artwork offered is an image of Lincoln or is related to the 16th president.

"It seems to be something that's rather popular," Stockton said.

"More often than not, it varies in terms of its artistic quality. A lot of it's amateur stuff. Occasionally we take that stuff, but we have to be careful because we do get offered a lot of that.

"In this case, Ms. Jackson is a professional artist, and so that was interesting or intriguing about her offer."

Jackson said she felt "floored and honored" when told the Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library would take six of her paintings. She had initially offered three.

Jackson had been working on the series over the past half year or so, out of a "burning desire" to create something about Lincoln because he was from Illinois, as is President Barack Obama, who appears in one of the paintings she gave to the Lincoln museum-library. The other paintings depict Lincoln, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Jackson's already given Lincoln and Obama portraits to the cities of Champaign and Urbana.

After doing that, she expanded to create paintings about other historic subjects such as slavery and abolition, Frederick Douglass, the Statue of Liberty, the U.S. flag and the eagle.

Jackson, a Malaysian citizen and permanent resident of the United States, is now visiting family in Malaysia. Later in July, she will travel to Mongolia to see "Her Presence in Colors No. 10," an international women's art show in which she has work. She has had work in the annual exhibition before.

Jackson, 61, has created work in other media but currently is focusing on painting.

Billy Morrow Jackson died in 2006; two years later Siti Mariah married Champaign artist Brian Sullivan, who also is primarily a painter.

Through Aug. 31, South Shore Arts in Munster, Ind., is showing 20 of Sullivan's larger artworks in the exhibition "Baby Boom or Bust!"

The show is alongside "Memorabilia from an Atomic Childhood," featuring toys and other pieces from John Cain, executive director of South Shore Arts.

"It is a fabulous collection of artifacts and reinforces the images I have used in the paintings," Sullivan said.

He tells me the Illinois State Museum also chose some of his paintings to be in a group exhibition called "Pro-Text: When Words Enter Visual Art" that will travel to the various state museums from Sept. 8 through Feb. 6, 2015.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

Topics (2):Art, People