By Carson Gerber
Tribune staff writer
Peru — There’s an unremarkable, commonplace door inside Peru High School. It opens into a small, run-of-the-mill, average-looking closet.
But walk inside, and you won’t find mops, buckets or cleaning supplies.
What you will see is something truly extraordinary: stacks and stacks of world-famous, extremely valuable paintings by artists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali scattered around on shelves and tables.
Sitting casually in a corner on a wooden pedestal is a more than 2,000 year old stone statue from China.
“Isn’t this nuts,” asked Mike Applegate, an art teacher at the school, who took a break from teaching his class to unlock the closet to show off a unique Dali construction called “Lincoln Vision.”
“It blows me away. I still can’t believe it,” he said.
At times, the nondescript closet is home to 138 paintings and prints from masters all across the U.S. and all over the world, including places like France, Spain and Russia. Some are cubist, impressionist, surrealist or modernist. Some are even from Brown County.
It’s an amazing, seriously expensive art collection. And it’s finally moving out of the closet.
Peru High School is currently installing a large, full-fledged, high-end art gallery equipped with climate control and a high-tech security system to display the pieces.
“Artist do artworks so that people can see them, not sit in a closet,” said Applegate, who sits on the committee that oversees the collection. “Now, it will finally be open to the community, so art colleagues and anyone else can see it.”
The collection came from G. David Thompson, a Peru High School
graduate who became a wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist in the 1920s. He became an art enthusiast, and eventually became a world-renowned art collector.
He started donating parts of his collection to the high school in 1938 to honor his teacher and principal John Whittenberger, and stipulated the works had to be used for educational purposes at the school.
The collection also includes 54 pieces of oriental ceramics — the oldest dating from 215 B.C. — that sit inside a glass display case near the main entrance of the school.
Before the current high school was built in 1970, Applegate said some of the paintings just hung in the hallway. When the current high school was built, parts of the collection were displayed in the student art gallery, but the majority remained packed away in the closet.
Connie Cutler, head of the art department and coordinator of the museum, said the new gallery cost the district $220,000. She said the school is converting the old drama department rooms into the new space, which is roughly 3,000 square feet.
“We’ve come a long way since the district first received this collection,” she said.
Cutler said they have yet to determine how the gallery will operate. She said it will likely be open a few days a week, and there won’t be any admittance fees.
Some may ask if it’s dangerous displaying a world-class collection of paintings, pottery and statues inside a high school. Applegate doesn’t think so.
“No, I think it’s awesome,” he said, adding the security system is seriously high-tech. “I’d rather have it at a high school, where thousands of kids can see it and learn from it. Some of these kids will never be able to go to a museum, you know? This will have quality work that any museum would have.”
Cutler said educating students about art is the main reason the district hasn’t ever considered selling any of the pieces. She said the collection was donated by Thompson with that express purpose.
“The idea of selling it has been off the table,” she said. “This art was given to us for education, and that’s what we’re using it for.”
And Applegate said the collection can better serve that purpose in the new gallery.
“Instead of showing them something on the Internet, we can actually bring them to these works to see up-close the brush strokes and thickness of the paint,” he said. “It’s awesome. There’s a lot of teachers out there who are envious of us.”
So how much is the collection actually worth? Officials said they were staying silent about that.
Cutler said the gallery should be open sometime in April. Part of the collection is currently on display at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.
“We’re definitely looking forward to using this as an educational tool, instead of it sitting in a closet and collecting dust,” said Principal Kenneth Hanson.
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