Big Art for a Small Town: Falls City gets a major collection of paintings

The Stalder Gallery at the Falls City Public Library. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
Thomas Hart Benton drawings in the gallery storage room. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
The Falls City Public Library. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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July 2, 2013 - 6:30am

A low-profile cattleman from southeast Nebraska quietly has donated an impressive and valuable collection of paintings and prints from his personal collection to the small community gallery in his hometown of Falls City, Neb. 

Last year, without fanfare, Merle Stalder packed up artwork from his homes in Richardson County and Kansas City, Mo. and transferred them to the museum named for Stalder and his wife Marcia at the Falls City Public Library.  More than 100 works, several created by internationally recognized artists, were included in the gift to the Library and Community Foundation of Richardson County.

Curator Christina Wertenberger examines a recently donated Thomas Hart Benton drawing. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Museum curator Christina Wertenberger told NET News Stalder wanted the collection to have a permanent home in Falls City.  “The sole purpose is to protect the artwork, keep it for the public and preserve it for future generations,” Wertenberger said.

Because of the gift, the museum now owns works by famed Depression-era painter Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, abstract expressionist Sam Francis, and photographers Ansel Adams and Yousuf Karsh.

Prominent Nebraska artists are also featured including John Falter, the popular Saturday Evening Post illustrator, oil painter Alice Cleaver, inventor/photographer Harold “Doc” Edgerton and Allan Tubach, a Falls City native.

Wertenberger believes the Stalder acquisitions make for “a very interesting collection” since the works include “several different mediums, several different genres, different time periods, different countries. Everything from complete realism to total abstraction.” 

The collection is of special interest to art historians since a number of the works were acquired early in an artist’s career.  Wertenberger explained the collection focused on artists with “potential” with a goal of providing “definite support for the art scene.” 

At the request of the donor there was no public announcement of the gift when it was made official more than a year ago.  Stalder “doesn’t desire to be in the limelight” according to Wertenberg.

Stalder spoke to NET News about his decision to turn over the collection. The gift to the community had been the couple’s intent for many years. Parts of their art holdings had been donated to the foundation over the years.  Turning over the rest of the collection was “no big deal” according to Stalder.  “It seemed to be the right thing to do.”

The Stalders made sure if the collection was donated, gallery space would be made available in Falls City with pieces routinely on display.  The community responded by building the new library designed to accommodate the visual arts.  The gallery, opened in 2007, would fit in well in the big city art districts in Kansas City or Minneapolis. 

“We said if you build it we will give you the things that we have and, lo and behold, it came to be,” Stalder said.  “That pleased us very much. The purpose was to show (the art works) and not warehouse them where they could not be seen.” 

Stalder’s family has deep roots in Richardson County.  The family’s 6,000 acre cattle operation, based in Salem, Neb., began business more than 60 years ago.  His contributions to the arts in southeast Nebraska have been recognized by the Governor’s Arts Awards.  He’s also sponsored classical and jazz concerts in Falls City and Brownville, Neb. 

Merle Stalder at one of the jazz concerts he sponsered. (Photo Courtesy Stalder Gallery)

I always like to refer to him as a Renaissance Man from Richardson County,” said Omaha-based artist Allan Tubach. Stalder acquired or commissioned a number of Tubach’s paintings for his collection. 

He is very much at home in the saddle, raising cattle,” Tubach said. “He is also equally at home in a seat in a concert hall listening to opera and symphony.”

The Stalders collected art less as investment, but more because they liked particular pieces they would find on trips to Kansas City and later around the world.  Marcia Stalder had a fondness for African art, in particular pieces originating from Ghana.  Other paintings represent Brazil and Cuba.  Merle Stalder’s preferences are almost impossible to categorize.

I’m a totally untrained and untutored collector,” Stalder said.  "Consequently it has just been what we chose at the moment because we thought it best represented what we wanted to collect.  It has no structural basis of any kind, so therefore it’s more of a hodge-podge than a collection.”   

Apparently amused by his own inability to explain what he liked, Stalder ended the thought with a big laugh. 

Curator Wertenberger recently entered the secure storage area of the museum to show a visitor the acquisitions from Stalder.   Lettering on the edge of a white metal storage panel identifies a half-dozen works by Thomas Hart Benton.  Even those who don’t know a lot about art would recognize the style.  His dark, earthy, Depression-era landscapes often feature trees disfigured by the winds of the plains and muscular, dirt-poor farmers.  The Benton works Stalder purchased include a set of pen and ink portraits of the Joad family.  These were the fictional, poor characters from John Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” The drawings were commissioned by a publisher to illustrate a special edition of the book.

Wertenberger shared the back story that makes the pieces even more noteworthy. 

“When they made the movie they used these drawings to cast the movie based on what people felt (the family) should look like. It’s an interesting collection,” Wertenberger said.

Hanging on another storage rack are paintings in a disconcertingly different style: splashes of brightly colored paint on bare canvas create big, bold shapes. These are early works by the abstract expressionist Sam Francis.  Some of his paintings now draw six-figure bids from collectors at high-end auctions.

The fact these were created near the beginning of Francis’ career underscore another secret behind the value of the Stalder collection. 

“When they were purchased makes a big difference,” as to their importance Wertenberger said.  Francis was on the edge of greatness at the time “but now we know what a large contribution to the arts Sam Francis made and we have these wonderful pieces in our collection.” 

The couple liked supporting young artists and as a result they were able, in some cases, to buy when the works were affordable and eventually highly sought after.    

The Stalders donated the sculpture outside the Falls City Library (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

So now Stalder’s neighbors can see striking paintings by internationally known artists and continue to build the community’s reputation as a small town that is big on the fine arts. 

“I think this gives Falls City some real cachet in terms of destination,” Tubach said. “(It is) a reason to go to Falls City for the day and see the shows and they are very good about changing the art on display every four to six weeks.”

Since Stalder insisted making his gift low-key, there has been no celebration or public recognition.  That will change, albeit in a small way this fall. An upcoming exhibition will spotlight the museum’s latest acquisitions.  Stalder will share the moment with others who recently donated art to the museum.

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