Surprise! Sports Halls of Fame Have Art Collections

Artists may enjoy sports, and athletes may well appreciate art, but generally we don't tend to put the two together in the same thought. Perhaps we should. "The same key characteristics are required to become a pro-hockey player or a world-renowned sculptor: Persistence, self-confidence, tolerance for risk, belief in your own vision, a standard of excellence and an appreciation for your role in the progress of the community," claimed Dr. Thomas P. Rosandich, founder and chief executive officer of the United States Sports Academy in Daphne, Alabama.

If you visit the Academy, which offers Bachelor's, Masters and doctoral degrees in a variety of fields (sports management, strength and conditioning, coaching, health and fitness and something called Olympism, among them), you won't find many students, since the teaching is all done online. What you will see is lots of art.

The Academy consists of one sprawling building containing administrative offices and the American Sport Art Museum and Archives (www.asama.org), which has a collection of more than 1,700 paintings, prints and sculptures by artists some of whom specialize in sports subjects and others who are quite well-known in the larger art world (such as Arman, Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol).

Not only are art and sport not diametrically opposed. There is a place where both come together.

At the American Sport Art Museum and Archives, there is some artwork for most every sport you can name. On the grassy area around the building are a number of welded metal sculptures by Fairhope, Alabama artist Bruce Larsen portraying a sprinter, gymnast, weight lifter and a basketball player, and on the exterior of the Academy building itself is 27 foot-tall baseball-themed mural by Spanish artist Cristobal Gabarron titled "A Tribute to the Human Spirit." Inside are galleries with thematic or single artist exhibits (an entire room is devoted permanently to painted images from the 1972 Munich Olympics by Leroy Neiman), another gallery features the work of the sports artist or artists of the year (the designated 2013 winners are San Francisco graphic artist Primo Angeli and St. Charles, Missouri sculptor Martin Linson -- the next artist will be picked in November) and a corridor features one work by every previous artist of the year -- a committee has selected one or more every year since 1984 when the museum was founded.

For Dr. Rosandich, art is not just decoration, and sports-themed art is not merely memorabilia for guys in their man-caves. It is his mission to connect the two areas of human achievement. "The ancient Olympics honored both art and sport, and ancient Greek art more often than not portrayed athletes," he said. "We are just carrying on that tradition."

Since few of the 1,200 or so students ever make it onto the actual campus, the museum and its message exists for the larger world -- "people who are traveling I-10 and happen to see it," according to the Academy's director of communications, or anyone else. The American Sport Art Museum and Archives isn't the only place that does this, but there aren't many others. "Many people are intimidated by art," said Elizabeth Varner, director of the National Art Museum of Sport (www.nationalartmuseumofsport.org), "thinking it's something they won't understand. But we get a lot of sports fans coming in, and they become intrigued by how an artist interprets sports." Often, visitors leave more energized than when they came in, which tends to be the opposite of most art museums.

The museum, which currently is located at Indiana University in Indianapolis but is expecting to relocate within the next year, has more than 1,000 artworks (paintings, photographs, prints, sculptures), and 40 different sports are represented. Mina Papatheodorou-Valyraki's expressionistic painting of a Formula One Ferrari, Charles Fazzino's mixed-media Pop Art view of Super Bowl 46 and Rhoda Sherbel's bronze full-length portrait of Yankees manager Casey Stengel are among the highlights.

Another is the National Sporting Library and Museum (www.nsl.org) in Middleburg, Virginia, which is more specialized, focusing on equestrian, angling and what are called "field" sports, polo, hunting and shooting. "We do British field sports," said Claudia Pfeiffer, the museum's curator, "not just horse sports." (For those who are content with just horse sports, there is the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, Kentucky http://imh.org, the National Museum of Racing, www.racingmuseum.org, in Saratoga Springs, New York and the Genesee Country Village & Museum, www.gcv.org, in Mumford, New York. The Yale Center for British Art, http://britishart.yale.edu, on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut also has a sizeable collection of sporting art.) The museum draws 10,000 visitors annually to examine its 12,000-volume library of sporting books and 300-work collection of paintings and sculpture. Among the artists in the collection are Alfred James Munnings (1878-1959), a British painter of horses and outspoken enemy of Modernism in art, and Edward Troye, a Swiss-born American painter of thoroughbred horses. It is located just 40 miles from Washington, D.C., "we're in the heart of fox-hunting country," Pfeiffer noted. "Some people come in while on a fox hunt. They walk in with their boots and breeches on."

These are relative small museums with little to no budgets for acquisitions, and their entire collections are donated by sports art collectors or the artists themselves, and it is rare that they are ever crowded. Far better attended are the halls of fame of various sports, but only some of them have much in the way of original art. Perhaps the most notable art collection is at the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum in Newport, Rhode Island, which has a 1979 Andy Warhol screenprint of Chris Evert and a c.1930 drawing of Bill Tilden by James Montgomery Flagg, as well as a 1924 etching of Helen Wills by Childe Hassam and a 1538 oil on board painting of a palace tennis court by Flemish artist Lucas Gassel.

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York has an art collection of more than 1,500 works (including pieces by Leroy Neiman, Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol), but no more than 30 are ever displayed at any one time, while the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio has some "limited edition prints, but not a lot of original art," according to its curator Jason Aikens. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum has a grouping of 13 paintings by Leroy Neiman that he was commissioned to create in 1962, as well as other original artwork, although "a lot of it looks like illustration," said the museum's director Ellen Bireley. Those looking for art needn't bother with the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Chicago or the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, and the United States Hockey Hall of Fame Museum in Eveleth, Minnesota only has displays of photographs and uniforms.

For some artists, sports might seem like a break from more serious subjects, although for many 18th, 19th and 20th century American artists athletic events were a frequent motif. A 1923 prize fight between Jack Dempsey and Luis Firpo is known to us primarily because of George Bellows' 1924 oil "Dempsey and Firpo" -- in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art -- that shows Dempsey being knocked through the ropes (Dempsey came back to win the bout). Thomas Eakins enjoyed painting the muscular bodies of wrestlers and swimmers, while Winslow Homer frequently portrayed fishermen and hunters and Fairfield Porter periodically depicted outdoor tennis play. "Sports has been a major genre in American art for most of our history," said Allen Guttmann, retired professor of English and American Studies at Amherst College and the author of the 2011 Sports and American Art from Benjamin West to Andy Warhol (University of Massachusetts Press). "Nowadays, very few living artists do sports subjects, in large measure because art dealers and museum directors think of sports as an unimportant area. They turn up their noses at it. That's plain ignorant."

There is one art gallery, San Francisco's George Krevsky Gallery, which offers an annual appreciation of the art of baseball every spring. The current exhibition of paintings runs through the end of May. "Sports as a subject of art is rare these days," Krevsky said. "We are unique in that sense." However, this exhibition, now in its 16th year, brings in more visitors to the gallery than any other. "It brings in people who don't come in other times, and the response is always tremendous."