Students get hands-on experience at NAU Art Museum thanks to Macy Collection

Student photographs a small artifact from the Macy collection

When the Aaron M. Macy Memorial Collection arrived at Northern Arizona University earlier this month, it felt a bit like Christmas morning for student workers Haley Panos and Shea O’Neill, who get to unpack and catalog the 132 pieces that make up the collection.

Granted, the unwrapping process is notably more cautious than tearing into gifts.

Panos, a senior anthropology major and art history minor, and O’Neill, a comparative cultural studies major, started their work by photographing and noting any scratches or dents to each box and how materials were used to protect it during shipping.

Once each piece is unwrapped, the students make notes of possible damage or defects such as chips, fading colors and blemishes that may or may not be signs of damage.

“We’re not experts on all of the artists, so we don’t know how they’re firing their ceramics in particular or the chemical reactions that are going on in the furnace, so we just note everything and then it can be revisited,” Panos said. “The fact that Ty Miller is giving us reign to do this whole thing is pretty cool.

Miller, curatorial and museum specialist, said the Macy Collection is the second-largest collection gifted to NAU that he is aware of, and the largest in his time heading the museum. The collection’s donor was a landscape architect from the Portland metro area who had deep ties to NAU at the time of his passing in 2017.

Doug Macy’s connection to NAU started with his son. Aaron Macy was a ceramics student at NAU in the late 1990s. Through Aaron’s education, Doug developed an appreciation for art of various kinds.

Doug began to routinely visit NAU after his son died of leukemia while completing his graduate studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He became a member of the College of Arts and Letters Advisory Council and played a major role in designing and planning for the buildings that now make up the ceramics complex on south campus.

His donations to the college reach into seven figures.

“He was a real advocate for ceramics and helped in every way he could—never asking for anything in return,” ceramics program head Jason Hess told NAU News when the donation was announced in 2018. Hess met Doug during his first summer teaching at NAU, and they developed a long friendship.

It has taken some years for the collection to make its way to NAU campus as details of the Macy estate were worked out and loan agreements with other museums were fulfilled.

The rock wall outside NAU’s Ceramics Complex was built in honor of Doug Macy’s son, Aaron.

The items are now giving the NAU Art Museum student workers quite a summer project.

Panos and O’Neill are not the only student workers to take part in getting the Macy Collection ready for exhibit, though they are currently the only two doing so in Flagstaff. Other students are working remotely on building a database of the collection.

Such real-world experience can be hard to duplicate in a classroom.

“Some of the museum studies classes get into conservation and stuff behind the scenes, but most of my classes are learning about paintings and history,” said O’Neill, who one day hopes to work in a museum. “This is good practice.”

While classes can give students an idea of best practices and theory, they are learning about the types of things that only come with firsthand experience. They’ve dealt with cataloging errors by previous owners and odd quirks that come with having a large collection, like how to properly identify similar pieces by the same artist: one named Moonpot and the other Moon Pot.

Miller said COVID-19 has caused some alterations to his original hopes for exhibiting the Macy Collection. There are still plans to hold small exhibitions of single artists that will feature work from the collection along with other pieces the university already owns by those artists.

“Long-term, Doug wanted the artwork to be visible and accessible for scholarly endeavors and appreciation,” he said. “To that end, we are working toward integrating casework into public spaces throughout campus.”

Other plans include using the art for K-12 outreach programs across the region and expanding the museum’s ability to display pieces online.

Miller said it will likely be a long time until the final plan for the Macy Collection is realized. That will likely mean years of hands-on experience for the museum’s student staff.

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Zachary Ziegler | College of Arts & Letters