The big question is, what's a Hubbard worth?

Don't expect an easy answer

By Don Ward

MADISON, Ind. (August 2000) Studying art for its financial value and for its historical significance are two different things, says art history professor Judy Bullington. She practices the latter.

But ever since being asked to present an art critique of Harlan Hubbard's work at a June 17, 2000, symposium at Hanover College, she has fielded frequent questions about the value of Hubbard artworks.

To distinguish the two, she declines to even suggest a price tag for any one piece of the dozens of Hubbard paintings she has been inspecting since last summer. Rather, her presentation, complete with color slides, will attempt to put Hubbard into a historical context, and to try and identify the early sources, techniques and processes that influenced him.

Meg Shaw, art librarian at the University of Kentucky M.I. King Library, will join Bullington in making the presentation and provide the slides.

"Anything that the collector of Hubbard's paintings knows is helpful in studying an artist's style, so the stories that go with them are important, too," said Bullington, a native of Carlisle, Ky., who now serves as assistant professor of art history at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Ore. She earned three degrees at the University of Kentucky before earning her doctorate in art history at Indiana University.

"I'll take those images and my knowledge art history to place Hubbard in historical context of what was going on around him at the time," she said. "I'm also interested in the Hubbard mystique, and Harlan Hubbard certainly had that. It is that combination of his art being an extension of his lifestyle that makes him unique."

But as far as talent and his place among Midwest American artists? Well, that may be a question for someone else to answer. Or discuss, as they are sure to do at the June symposium, which is expected to attract Hubbard enthusiasts from all over the country.

Bullington was in Madison, Ind., on Dec. 18-20 to visit homes of area private collectors and view paintings at public buildings where Hubbard's artwork hangs. She will return in June to report her findings.

"It should be the first of its kind presentation," said Meg Shaw, who six years ago took a one-year sabbatical to catalog Hubbard's artwork on color slide film at the suggestion of Henry County, Ky., author Wendell Berry. A close friend of Hubbard's, Berry published the 1990 book, "Harlan Hubbard Life and Work," one of view sources that discusses Hubbard's development as an artist. The book contains eight pages of color photos of Hubbard's work.

"Mr. Berry was concerned that there wasn't any public collection of Hubbard's art for people to come and see and study," Shaw said. "He put me in touch with some people who had some of his art, and I went around and took pictures of it."

The university also negotiated to purchase a collection of nearly 500 slides of Hubbard's oils and acrylics taken by Flo Burdine, a 1980 Hanover College graduate. Burdine spent nearly a year cataloging Hubbard's work as part of a college project. She now serves as director of the Anna and Harlan Hubbard School of Living, based at the Frankfort (Ind.) Public Library. The school sponsors a variety of classes "to teach people how to make their lives a work of art," according to library director William Caddell.

Caddell, who donated 30 wood-cut prints to Hanover College, shows his collection each year in November at the Frankfort library, and he has been asked to exhibit his Hubbards from Jan. 14 to Feb. 15 at the Greater Lafayette (Ind.) Museum of Art. He recently gave 25 wood-cut prints to the Behringer Crawford Museum in Covington, Ky., and will split the profits from their sale as part of the museum's effort to raise money to print a catalog of its collection.

"I lend things to museums all the time," Caddell said. "But curators and museum directors have to be convinced that Harlan Hubbard is worth preserving."

Though large, the UK collection is still incomplete, and Shaw is trying to arrange another grant-based sabbatical to finish the job.

Though it's early in her research, Bullington cited Hubbard's obvious expression of his environment in nearly all of his work. She says his artistic style is "inconsistent" thematically, and for that reason will not organize her presentation as a chronological development of Hubbard's artwork.

Rather, she plans to present her case thematically, tied to Hubbard's use of impressionistic and post-impressionistic styles that were prevalent among late 19th century artists.

"Hubbard is eclectic (in his styles); he chooses selectively from various techniques," she said. "But is he a backwoods Picasso? I'm not sure."

Bullington does, however, see the danger in people losing touch with the Hubbard legacy if it is not somehow preserved or promoted, especially locally. Aside from Hanover College's little known permanent collection and a few single paintings hanging in various public buildings in Trimble County, Ky., there is no way for people to view Hubbard's artwork, except maybe for the occasional art showing.

"If his work is not consistently accessible to the public, you won't have scholars coming to study the collection. And the fact they're so dispersed (among collectors), that's a problem, too," Bullington said.

As a result, she has had to depend on the hospitality of private art collectors to view Hubbard's paintings in preparation for her presentation.

Despite her Kentucky roots, Bullington learned of Harlan Hubbard through books, newspaper clippings and his art. She never met Hubbard but was hoping to make her first visit to Payne Hollow during her December stop in Madison.

She said her recent introduction to the Hubbard legacy should provide some objectivity to evaluating his artistic talent.

And about the financial worth of his paintings? "It has value," she said. "But it may not be the kind of value that some people hope for."