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Exhibit highlights esteemed photography collection donated to APSU

In the late 1970s, some of the worlds top photographers made their way to a small art gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Luminaries in this field, such as Bill Brandt and Bruce Barnbaum, displayed their work at the Fifth Avenue Gallery of Photography, located in the heart of the citys art district. Sometimes, they left a few prints behind as a gift to gallery owner Jim Robertson.
In the late 1970s, some of the world's top photographers made their way to a small art gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Luminaries in this field, such as Bill Brandt and Bruce Barnbaum, displayed their work at the Fifth Avenue Gallery of Photography, located in the heart of the city's art district. Sometimes, they left a few prints behind as a gift to gallery owner Jim Robertson.

Those photos joined an already impressive collection owned by Jim and his wife Nan. When the couple later moved to Dover, Tenn., the works decorated the walls of their home. But after years of privately enjoying these photographs, the Robertsons made a surprising decision. One afternoon last spring, Jim picked up the telephone and called Austin Peay State University.

“I asked if they'd like the collection,” he said. “I thought a smaller school would probably make better use of it, and maybe display it and use it better than a larger school with greater access and resources.”

He wanted to donate such valuable works as original photographs by André Kertész and Ruth Bernhard, both considered among the 20th century's leading photographers.

It was an offer that seemed too good to be true to APSU art professor Billy Renkl, but last spring, he and APSU Gallery Director Warren Greene oversaw the transportation of the collection to the University. The works will be on display next month in the APSU Trahern Gallery as part of the exhibit “Modern Light: Selections from the Jim and Nan Robertson Photography Collection.”

“We've never had a photography show of this magnitude,” Susan Bryant, APSU photography professor and show curator, said.

The exhibit opens on Oct. 5 with a gallery talk at 7 p.m. by independent curator and art critic Susan Knowles. Jim Robertson will also be available, and attendees are encouraged to ask questions and participate in a dialogue with these two individuals. The exhibit will run through Oct. 28, but once the show ends, the photographs will remain at Austin Peay to be used in the classroom.

“I'll bring students down, lay out certain ones, let them come in and look at the prints,” Bryant said. “It's really good for them to see in person a really good quality print that has stood the test of time.”

One of the main reasons Robertson donated his collection to APSU is he wanted the photographs to be used for teaching purposes. He briefly thought of giving the works to the University of Arizona or Vanderbilt University.

“But they have millions upon millions of dollars,” he said. “When I came here (to Tennessee), I knew Austin Peay was here thanks to your basketball team. I started inquiring a little more about the school. Finally, I picked up the phone and made a call.”

Bryant is still amazed at the breadth of the collection now in the University's possession. Most of the works by these photographers belong to galleries, museums and universities out west or in major cities such as New York and Chicago.

“I don't know any university in Tennessee that has an original Kertész and Bill Brandt,” she said. “For middle America, or the South, this is probably one of the best collections I'm aware of.”

For more information on the exhibit or the photographs, contact Bryant at 931-221-7348 or bryants@apsu.edu. -- Charles Booth