ELMHURST – When Staci Boris, Chief Curator of the Elmhurst Art Museum, dug into the museum's more than 30-year-old collection, she expected to find mid-century modern pieces given the museum's home in Mies van der Rohe's McCormick House.
But she discovered many surprises as well.
"Through these folk portraits from the 19th century that I'd never seen before … I learned something really important about the history of the area here," said Boris about a pair of portraits attributed to Sheldon Peck.
Boris quickly discovered Peck's home in Babcock's Grove, now Lombard, served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The Sheldon Peck Homestead is now a local landmark.
It's an experience she hopes even the casual visitor gets out of the museum's current exhibition, Inventory_The EAM Collection. Since its opening Sept. 21, Boris has noticed the maps she created with a list of featured artists and their exhibited work have been disappearing. One patron even emailed her after his visit asking for one of the maps so when he explores other museums he can keep track if he's seen work by the same artists before.
"Well that's exactly what I would like people to do, to be intrigued to go a little bit further," Boris said.
One of the artists featured in the Inventory exhibit, Jason Peot, thinks Boris' mission to inspire visitors to explore art beyond the museum is important given its suburban location.
Even before Peot moved from Chicago to Elmhurst two years ago with his wife and three children, he saw the Elmhurst Art Museum as a suburban gem in the context of Chicago's plentiful museums.
"The collection is a really important representation of Chicago art," said Peot.
Boris sees the collection not only as Chicago art, but as a portrayal of the museum's own history.
"A lot of these works have value in many ways," said Boris. "They're really interesting as far as the history of Elmhurst and of the institution itself."
The exhibition features 296 of about 475 pieces in the museum's collection. The gallery opens with a look at early works, those like Peck's that are some of the oldest in the collection, but also the first pieces added in 1981 when the museum was established.
"I have the original list that lists the 60 works that were shown as part of the permanent collection, and 20 of them are still in the collection now," Boris said.
The foundation pieces feature Eleanor King, the museum's founder, and Sandra Jorgensen, who taught at Elmhurst College. The first gallery is filled floor to ceiling with these assorted works from the museum's origins on one wall and a variety of artwork dating as far back as possibly 200 B.C.
"I wanted to give viewers a sense of the abundance of objects that we have here," Boris said.
When she took on the daunting project after just as year at the Elmhurst Art Museum, Boris wanted to fully grasp the collection and develop a plan for responsibly adding to it.
"I think it's important to focus on our strengths," Boris said. "I think it's important to continue sort of a parallel collection to our exhibition history."
Many of the collection's most recent works were donated by exhibiting artists from the Chicago area. Boris sees this as a reflection of the art the museum chooses to showcase. She still thinks there is a place for the worldly items donated to the museum by private collectors.
"I think that it's interesting to look at things that are happening in Chicago at the same time that they're happening elsewhere and make comparisons and note the differences or similarities," Boris said.