By RITA KUEBER
An extraordinary collection of over 20,000 pieces of clothing and decorative arts items from the 18th to the 21st centuries is available to all, neatly packaged in a series of galleries, and housed in a 1927 Beaux Arts building on a university campus just a half-hour trip south of Cleveland. Well worth the modest distance to investigate, The Kent State University Museum (ranked #10 in the US) is inexorably linked to Kent’s School of Fashion (ranked #4 in the U.S). As the museum works with new leadership to raise its profile, an invaluable assemblage like this one – with both depth and breadth – while not quite 40 years old, truly is a unique treasure, and one that NE Ohio should be very proud to call its own.
Technically, the KSU ‘Fashion School’ is actually The Shannon Rodgers and Jerry Silverman School of Fashion Design and Merchandising, since it was these two gentlemen whose personal collection of fashion items became the core of the museum’s holdings in 1982. This initial contribution from New Yorker Jerry Silverman and Shannon Rodgers, a native of Newcomerstown, Ohio, numbered about 4,000 pieces and included historic and contemporary fashions, 1,000 pieces of decorative arts (furniture, textiles, paintings) and a 5,000-volume reference library. Later, the Tarter/Miller donation of some 10,000 pieces of glass formed the second major gift to the museum.
It’s well documented that Rodgers and Silverman, New York manufacturers of high-end women’s dresses (1959-73), wanted their personal collection of clothing, antiques and decorative items to go to an organization that would not only make the pieces available as a resource, but also allow them to be used in partnership with an educational component. While there were negotiations with leaders in both Cleveland and Akron, it was Kent State that was able to make their vision a reality by establishing the museum and the school simultaneously. The Museum opened to the public in 1985.
Today, through careful curating, the core now has closer to 20,000 pieces. Because of its excellence and high profile in the museum world, it has continued to attract coveted items throughout the years. This includes an incredible gift from the estate of actress Katharine Hepburn in 2008. From her roles on Broadway in the 1930s through her final films in the 1980s, Hepburn regularly purchased her wardrobe as a project concluded. Always independent and cutting-edge, her compilation includes her costumes, shoes, scripts, makeup and more. “[Hepburn] believed these were valuable artifacts and wanted them to go to an educational location to preserve and exhibit them,” says museum director Sarah J. Rogers. “The institution had to have a stellar reputation and the means to carry out the wishes specified in her will, and KSU fit the bill. Hers is a traveling exhibit; part of her collection is currently in Daytona Beach, part in Pittsburgh. She continues to travel and spread the KSU name for us.”
Rogers was named director of the museum in July 2018, succeeding Jean Druesedow, who retired after 25 years. Ms. Rogers has what she calls a hybrid background with experience in exhibits, fundraising and strategic planning at the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts, the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), and the Wexner Center. “Director positions are rare,” she says, “but I have an interest in fashion and design in terms of material culture – not just clothing, but artifacts that track history, social politics and identity politics. So I tossed my hat in the ring.” As ‘chance favors the prepared mind,’ Rogers was named the director by the Kent State College of the Arts, which oversees the museum.
Admittedly, Rogers is still in her listening phase, but says: “My job is to figure out how to be more open, relevant and welcoming to the campus and all of Northeast Ohio.” Based on a conversation regarding current and upcoming events for 2019, best we clear our schedules:
● Step one – the museum is now open Tuesdays through Sundays, with Sunday admission free. “This is important to help anyone who might want to attend,” Rogers declares.
● Next, a formal membership program is starting, and will have an official roll out soon.
● A series of talks, Fashion Focus on Fridays at 2 p.m., lets artists and designers address students and the general public.
● A film series starting with “The Gospel According to André,” about André Leon Talley, former “Vogue” creative director and “America’s Next Top Model” judge.
● About Focus: Fiber 2019, a biennial national juried exhibition of contemporary fiber will fill a gallery from March 1 through July 28.
● Beyond the Suit runs through June 30, and explores current trends in menswear design.
● Additionally this spring, the permanent collection will expand into a new space to accommodate more contemporary fashion. Currently the main gallery’s timeline is 1760 – 1950. “But we’re going to continue past that, into the 21st century, because a lot happened in the last sixty years,” Rogers says.
And then, a blockbuster of sorts for the entire campus: In 2019-2020, all of Kent State University is going to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the events of May 4, 1970. “This is the first time the whole university has said ‘let’s talk about this in a meaningful way, in all of its complexities,’ Rogers says. “The museum’s exhibit is Culture/Counterculture with the establishment designers, high-end couture on one side of the gallery, and on the other, the fashions and paraphernalia of activists, early message t-shirts, for example. That we’re dealing with two sets of values based on what each group was wearing at the time will be apparent. Whether it was something you lived through or something you read about in a history book, we want this to be engaging and eye-opening.
“Museums have changed a lot in the last decade,” she continues. “What once might have been a formal place with people speaking in hushed tones, wasn’t for everybody. Today, we are community gathering places.” Rogers acknowledges that housed inside a formidable looking building just means the museum must strive to be more welcoming. “This museum is your museum – we are listening to what people want to experience.”
The public is one portion of the audience. For another portion, scholars and historians, the KSU museum has an excellent reputation. “Each piece tells a story of how it was made and who it was made for,” Rogers says. “Pieces are studied by scholars to gain insight into the lives of ordinary people.” She talks about how clothing may not be historical in its own right, but rather how it is a reflection of a society.
“We all wear clothes every day, and our choices tell us about who we are. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg wearing the same thing every day – that’s a choice – that tells us something about them. What we choose to wear – what’s in style gives us insight into our complexities.” She points to the message t-shirt. “The first graphic tee was Mickey Mouse,” she says, “but activists in the 1960s seized the message t-shirt as a way to make a statement, and we see it in movements today. The first thing the Parkland students did was make a t-shirt with a QR code that encouraged young people to register to vote. It’s like a moving billboard.”
The other scholarly audience is made up of designers, who like historians, investigate how pieces are constructed. “Just as there are great moments in architecture or painting, there are great ‘aha’ moments in clothing,” Rogers says. “A designer wants to know how Chanel constructed her jackets and why it was so revolutionary compared to past designs – they go to the source.” (Note: a credentialed scholar often has private access to collection pieces, whereas the public, generally, does not.) Rogers compares this kind of study by designers as like an artist learning to sketch before creating a full-blown painting.
Rogers talks proudly about the success of the Fashion School. The first class had 50 students, but today that number is 1,800. The students tend to fall into two subsets – designers/makers and merchandisers. KSU offers a Bachelor’s degree in both, as well as a Graduate degree in Fashion Industry Studies. Students are required to complete both an approved internship, and study-away experience before graduating, and more than 3,000 alumni can be found throughout the industry working for the world’s most recognized brands. “We have alums working for Ralph Lauren as well as Target,” Rogers says, “but what’s most important is a strong effort to expose kids to all the possibilities, and then assist with placement and internships by keeping up our connections to the industry.”
She speaks enthusiastically about the collaborative relationship KSU has with larger institutions such as the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland History Center. “We all want audience,” she says, “and what we find is the more there is to see, the more audience there is. So we partner and collaborate with other intuitions…we just need to have a better profile to complement these other organizations.
“Be relevant to the community and have an engaging presence – this is what will maintain the [KSU] museum as a treasure for the community in the future. Audience development is key,” Rogers says. “And I am actually impressed with how much is going on in Northeast Ohio – this is a really good community to be in.”