The Daily Heller: A Museum of Illustration in Northern Michigan

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Emily Lanctot is director/curator of Northern Michigan University’s DeVos Art Museum, which includes the Secord Illustration Collection. Always on the lookout for archives and museums housing the popular art collections that often go missing for lack of space and care, this NMU trove is a pleasant surprise. I asked Emily to shed some light on the collection, which includes a fair selection of classic early 20th-century representational and 21st-century interpretive work.

James Montgomery Flagg (American, 1877–1960), Untitled, 1927, watercolor, 22 1/2″ H. x 28″ W. Gift of Ralph Secord.

When was the Northern Michigan University illustration collection started?
The illustration collection started in 1985 with a gift of 270 illustrations from Ralph and Anne Secord. The Museum’s illustration collection consists of mostly original drawings and paintings for periodicals (newspapers/magazines), advertisements, books and cards. The collection includes some prints, including architectural photolithographic prints, with the Frank Lloyd Wright Wasmuth Portfolio, and a recent acquisition of several screenprints by Tyler Stout.

We care for the collection using standard professional museum practices. Students and faculty can engage with the work through curriculum-specific tours, and they can use illustrations for observation, education and scholarship during scheduled appointments. We are working to increase accessibility through digitization.

The illustration collection began with the Secord Collection of American IllustrationRalph Secord (1923–1989), and a schoolteacher, Anne Gidilewich Secord (1924–1993), built the collection. To my knowledge, no one ever interviewed them about how and why, or what, they collected. The range of subjects (from sci-fi to Snoopy), across an array of media (from oil to animation), reflects the moment they lived in and their interests in popular culture.

Charles Dana Gibson (American, 1867–1944), Social Nuisances, 1890, ink on paper, 18″ H. x 26 1/2″ W. Gift of Ralph Secord.

Are there foreign as well as U.S. artists?
The print and illustration collections feature mostly American artists, and several Canadian artists. 

What is the ultimate goal of the collection—scholarship, accessibility, preservation?
We aim to provide access to original works for scholarship today and in the future. We plan to show newly acquired illustrations in an exhibition in the fall. Some of the featured examples are works by David Johnson (American), Anita Kunz (Canadian), Burton Silverman (American), John Hendrix (American), Scott Roberts and, if we receive it, Mark Summer (Canadian).

Fletcher Martin (American, 1904–1979), Untitled (from the series Of Mice and Men), c. 1970, watercolor, 21 1/2″ H. x 30″ W. Gift of Ralph Secord.
John Hendrix (American), illustration from John Brown: His Fight for Freedom, 2008, pen, ink, and fluid acrylics on board, 12 3/4” H. x 18 3/8” W. Gift of the artist.

Who were the Secords?
The Secords earned degrees from Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, MI. After the war, Mr. Secord earned a degree at Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland) School of Library Science to become a professional librarian. He began his career in Idaho as a library director in 1953. In 1957, Secord joined the Foreign Service, where he established and reorganized libraries abroad until his retirement in 1966. In 1966 he moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (the UP, to locals) to serve as the director of the Dickenson County Public Library (1966–1978) and the Mid-Peninsula Library Cooperative Federation (1966–1982). During his tenure in the UP, Secord expanded library services through a grant-funded mail-order book program and began a small press, The Ralph Secord Press, which produced and republished local history books.

A librarian who worked with Mr. Secord said that he loved art and would rotate his collection every six months at the library. During his career, he loaned illustrations for exhibitions in the Upper Peninsula. A 1969 article in The Escanaba Daily Press states that works by Norman Rockwell, Charles Dana Gibson and James Montgomery Flagg would view at the Carnegie Library in Escanaba. A 1971 article in the Press indicated that he loaned 20 original illustrations and comics, with several drawn for Judge and Puck magazinesThe same article mentions an original work by Pulitzer Prize–winner Rollin Kirby will be on view.

What triggered the collection into being?
There was no art museum anywhere in the Upper Peninsula, and community members wanted to share their collections and a place to see art. We are still the only museum that is open year-round in the UP. 

The Secords tried to find an institution of higher learning (the University of Minnesota, possibly North Carolina) to take their artwork, but none of the institutions would take the work. In 1981, the Secords visited NMU for the Annual Children’s Exhibition. The show was held in conjunction with the Young Authors program; Ed Emberley was the guest author and artist. In 1982 the Secords returned to NMU to see an exhibition featuring Time magazine covers alongside original artworks.

There are two parts of your holding. What is the second?
The other portion of our illustration collection contains regional, national and international contemporary illustrators. Professor Steven Hughes has worked to build this collection by asking illustrators for donations. (Professor Hughes generously helps offset costs by paying for shipping.) While we do not have an acquisition fund, occasionally donors purchase new artworks. Recently a donor purchased several comics by Norm Breyfogle (who went to NMU); he drew and/or inked two Batman pages and a Green Lantern cover.

Are there preferences in terms of collection theme, subject, media?
We are interested in growing our collection with examples from a diverse group of artists in various media. We are working toward establishing an acquisitions fund in the hopes of supporting this effort.