On April 4, the Center for Art and Dance’s Object Study room filled with curious onlookers: those interested in the center’s Richard N. Tetlie collection, and passersby wondering what the commotion was about. The occasion was the opening reception of “A Collector’s Obsession: The Lost Masterpiece,” an exhibit curated by Professor Vanessa Rousseau’s Museum Studies class and on display until April 23. Each student selected a work to show, researched the piece, wrote a museum label about it and helped prepare the exhibit and reception.
“A Collector’s Obsession” is a selection of works from the Richard N. Tetlie collection. Tetlie ’43 has deep ties to the college. His father Rev. Joseph Tetlie ’09 was St. Olaf’s first Rhodes Scholar. His grandfather Professor Halvor T. Ytterboe saved St. Olaf from financial ruin during the 1890s Depression, and his great-uncle was Thorbjorn Mohn, the college’s first president. With such big shoes to fill, Tetlie desired to leave his own legacy by amassing his own collection of artwork.
Tetlie worked as an art dealer and self-declared connoisseur from the 1960s to the 1980s, collecting over two thousand pieces that were donated to St. Olaf upon his death in 1999.
“He had a town house chock full of paintings stacked on paintings that were then bequeathed to college,” Josh Torkelson ’17, a student working on the reception, said. “He spent so much money on art that his own house dripped and needed repairs, and he had storage units of more paintings.”
Torkelson added that the Tetlie collection is the single largest collection in the school’s possession. The massive collection required many volunteers to sort through the pieces. One dedicated volunteer is Kathy Born, who delivered a talk about Tetlie’s life and work at the reception. Born read an excerpt of a July 1986 journal entry Tetlie wrote about his desire to “leave as broad a collection I can manage” and his enthusiasm for every piece in his collection, regardless of authenticity.
Indeed, one of the most surprising things about the exhibit is the sheer number of inauthentic pieces in the collection. There are many paintings credited to great artists such as Goya, Rubens and Poussin that are either unable to be authenticated or are clearly fakes. However, others that students selected are genuine, such as an early landscape by Edvard Munch selected by Natalie Shea ’19.
“It’s the first instance of an empty boat as loneliness,” Shea said. “It’s not expressive and bold like his later style but you can see it in this piece.”
Regardless of whether a piece is an authentic Munch, a life mask of George Washington, an ancient statue or a fake Kandinsky, Tetlie treated each work in his collection like a treasure, calling them priceless masterpieces in his letters. An exhibit like “A Collector’s Obsession” would certainly please Tetlie and his desire for legacy, as Born pointed out.
“It’s a teaching collection,” she said. “Kids now can have a chance to study as much as they can … The exhibit is terrific. It’s exactly what Tetlie hoped, that kids would have works to look at and study.”
Shea, for one, certainly appreciated the experience of studying the works in Tetlie’s collection and putting together the installation.
“It’s cool to see all the work together, and to do something in a class that reaches the entire community,” she said.