UO Oregana student and staff attribution to Gertrude Bass Warner from the 1934 publication.

In 1933, hoping to bewitch the student body and assembled local dignitaries with her own interest in intercultural understanding, Mrs. Murray Warner stood before the student body and spelled out the need for better art education at the University of Oregon. She begrudged the poor state of international awareness of the day, decrying “the students not at all internationally minded, not at all interested in giving the foreign students a happy time, not at all appreciative because these students had chosen to come to the United States, to the State of Oregon, and to the University 0f Oregon to get their education and to form their friendships.” Oregana, 1934, 161). The recently finished UO Museum of Art, home to Oregon’s first professional collection of Asian art and culture was Warner’s potent salve, a cure for dispassion. She explained that it was “presented to help establish and perpetuate friendly relations between ourselves and our neighbors across the Pacific, thereby fulfilling God’s law, ‘On earth peace, good will toward men,’ and ‘the God of peace shall be with you.’ Luke 2:14; Phil. 4:9 (Oregana, 1934, 165).” UO students appeared to have been put immediately under her spell. We can better understand the sentiment of the times by surveying the public rhetoric of the collection, the journalism and fanfare that welcomed Warner, her collection, and the museum to Eugene. As depicted in Oregon daily and quarterly newspapers, the views of the news do not directly convey those of its readership but may have contributed to the wider awareness of Warner’s collection and her mission.

Warner had lived in Eugene, in the time between collecting trips to Asia, for a little more than a decade, making a name for herself as a socialite and knowledgeable collector from the start. Following the sudden death of Murray the previous summer, Warner had relocated to reside near her son and Law School professor, Sam Warner, in late 1920. That same year coincidentally, on November 7, 1920, the Sunday Oregonian published a detailed description of national textile collection and museum practices entitled “Superior Designs of Old World are Traced by Experts Back to China of Ancients.” In the article, journalist William McGarry introduced Oregonians to recent studies linking French haute coutore to Chinese silks and elite gowns. He referred to University of Pennsylvania’s collection, to highlight the value of comparative analysis of material culture, and Eugene’s readers learned of the distinct and exotic nature of Chinese art’s influence on Western clothing. But Warner’s craft would not settle in for a few months.

The first mention of Warner in the papers comes from the year following. January 1921, she had met with and donated a set of Eastern European “Florentine mosaics,” to the University’s Art History department, a fantastic collection of art that Mrs. H. C. Worthman of Portland (visiting Eugene at the time) beamed was the “finest private collection that she had seen anywhere.” Then, on a winter day, January 29, a gaggle of Eugene’s prominent figures and the journalist for traipsed through Warner’s articles, examining and assessing the value of the collection and agreeing to terms for a potential donation. Journalist Lillian Lauld gushed, “today it appears that the University of Oregon has a fairy godmother more wonderful that Cinderella’s and as powerful as the genii of Aladdin’s lamp. It is not every university that can boast a Chinese fairy godmother!” And a local photographer captured Warner donning one of her cherished “old Chinese coats” for the public to see (see below).

During luncheons and over tea, from 1920 to 1922, Warner and the Pacific Northwest’s collection of White women enthusiasts and well-to-dos, most were advocates for women’s rights and sociopolitical activism, studied Asian art and cultural heritage as the first nonacademic area studies group at the UO. Relayed, for instance, in the “Society and Club News” section of Salem’s Capital Journal from June 1, 1922, news of Warner, the collection, and its significance for the public developed directly from women’s club activities. Engendering a sense of social dynamics of the day, these brief stories say a lot about social status and female posturing, but they also add nuance to what we might see today as pompous and vain behavior. Seemingly self-serving, early-twentieth century patrons of the arts, especially women, and the newspapers’ locked-on gaze helped to secure a home for outward-thinking and internationalization in Oregon.

Screenshot of Salem’s The Capital Journal, June 1, 1922, from Oregonnews’ “Historic Oregon Newspapers” online database. Announcements like this article, “Women of City [of Salem] Attend Exhibition,” fueled public awareness of Warner’s collection and Asian Art for the Pacific Northwest.

The Murray Warner Collection of Oriental Art’s first home was in fact the Woman’s Building (1921) on campus, today’s Gerlinger Hall (a building designed and decorated by Irene H. Gerlinger, a wealthy local and first female Regent at the UO).  And the majority of collection was housed there until the University Museum of Art was completed a decade later.  Warner’s objects were still living there when she as the UO Delegate to the 1929 Institute of Pacific Relations sailed to Japan.This is not to say that Oregon’s newspapers depicted Warner’s collection for purely educational and bridging purposes or that journalists relied solely on rosy accounts from socialites. In fact, the earliest announcements from 1922 salaciously egg on Oregonians to come see the “huge executioner’s sword which lopped of the heads of the Boxer generals, a Chinese inscription calling for the death of all foreigners and a valuable collection of lacquers,” a grim reminder of humanity’s darker interests in art.However, it is clear that there were two factors that  propelled the establishment of the collection. First, Warner’s determination to build a legacy for herself and Murray, and, second, the circle of powerful and networked internationalist women of the Pacific Northwest. Women traveling for luncheons and visiting friends helped to generate interest in particular types of Asian art, and local newspapers reaffirmed the existing practice of showcasing internationalism for the Oregon’s readership. And Warner’s spellbinding abilities and fairy-godmotherly nature helped to give clarity of purpose to art for the public. This is seen most clearly in her hopes for Asian art at the UO, as witnessed in her Eleventh declaration from collection’s deed:

It is my wish, hope and prayer that the officers in charge of this collection, the President of the University, and the professors of the University keep in mind the object of this gift, and keep presenting to the students and the public the ideas of fellowship, friendship and love toward our neighbors the Pacific that peace may always be maintained in order that this collection may be a blessing and that love may reign at home and abroad.

This optimistic vision faced direct assault in the decade following the permanent installation of her collection at the UO, in 1933. In her speech that year Warner had little idea that the world, once again, would become embroiled in global conflict and that Japan and the U.S. would oppose each other in a bloody contest for the Pacific Theater. In the coming years, Warner’s targeted audience–socialites, scholars, journalists, and especially the public–seemed to shirk her peaceful mission. But Warner, other UO faculty, and Oregon donors sewed research funding opportunities, through student-centered programs like the Murray Warner Essay Writing Contest and others, which enriched the soil that harbored the magic beans Warner had cast, beginning with the Woman’s Building exhibition in 1922: a matchless collection of Asian art and culture.

The Sunday Oregonian (Portland), Jan. 29, 1922, presented Lillian Lauld’s half-page study of Warner’s life and her and Murray’s collection. Note the early photographs of JSMA objects, likely taken in Warner’s house on 13th, and the image (bottom right) of Warner cloaked in an “old Chinese coat.”

 

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