Richard Brauer studied art history at the Institute of Design, Chicago’s breeding ground for modernists, and he specialized in 20th-century American art. But when Brauer joined the faculty at Valparaiso University in 1961, he became caretaker of a collection heavy with 19th-century landscapes and portraits influenced by the Hudson River school. It included painters like Frederick Edwin Church and Junius R. Sloan, whose son Percy, a Chicago public school teacher, had donated the collection to the Indiana university. “I didn’t know what to make of it at first,” Brauer recalls. “It was a struggle for me. I mean, there were an awful lot of cows in those pastures. But there was something genuine there. I could see these were strongly felt works of art.”

With abstraction still dominating American art and the pop explosion right around the corner, Valparaiso’s collection couldn’t have been more out of step with the times. Brauer was charged with the task of upgrading it and broadening its scope, but he wasn’t given much to work with in the way of funds. “There was very little money,” he recalls. “We regularly bought in four figures. If I had no restrictions, I might have tried for what was hot. I might have said, ‘Let’s get a Motherwell or a Jackson Pollock.’ But what we got then we couldn’t buy now. They were affordable because they were not as sought after then.”

As Brauer added to the university’s collection, he mounted shows in the circulation room of the library or the student union lounge. “We were innocents abroad,” says Brauer. “It was just, ‘Let’s have a show.'” He landed traveling exhibitions for rental fees of a few hundred dollars; sometimes he would wrangle a free painting for the permanent collection as a premium for hosting a touring show. But before long traveling exhibitions began to demand facilities that Valparaiso couldn’t offer. “They started sending out forms, with all their requirements. They were asking things we couldn’t do.” As early as 1966 Brauer began hatching plans for a museum, but 29 years would pass before the university completed one. “We’d submitted various plans for buildings, and I’m so grateful that we never got any of them. Sometimes you have to wait and do it the right way. We waited, and when we finally did it, we didn’t hold back.”

The museum opened in 1995, part of a $20 million arts center that includes facilities for the university’s drama and music programs and occupies a prominent place on campus, just across the street from the university’s showcase chapel. Most museums are named to honor large monetary gifts, but a local philanthropist making a generous bequest in 1996 insisted that the museum be named after Richard Brauer. And while the Brauer Museum of Art is a small one, fighting for recognition and support in Chicago’s backyard, it’s capable of big things. Last year the National Museum of Art of Romania mounted a U.S. tour of 27 Renaissance and Baroque paintings that had been hidden behind the iron curtain for decades. Its first stop was the Brauer Museum, a monumental coup for Valparaiso.

Now 70, Brauer has retired, but he still keeps an office in the museum. White-bearded and ruddy, he shows off the building–not just the galleries but the loading docks, the conservation rooms, and the basement with its 14-foot ceilings and state-of-the-art storage; the permanent collection is stored on sliding metal racks. “This is as good as it gets,” Brauer says. He points out a self-portrait by Junius Sloan, whose paintings formed the core of Valparaiso’s original collection. Though Brauer’s mission was to expand the collection beyond the Hudson River school, 37 years of tending to Sloan’s work has left him with a remarkably detailed knowledge of the artist’s life. “In the end, I think Junius was disappointed with himself as an artist,” Brauer explains. “I think he thought he was a failure. But the effort he made to be accurate, the level of detail, make him important. He’s given us these rare and important documents. What they are, really, is a record of the commonplace.”

Like Sloan, Brauer has persevered. Over the years he’s built a nationally significant collection on minuscule budgets, pouncing on the paintings he wanted before the big spenders could catch up with him: one of his first purchases was Georgia O’Keeffe’s Rust Red Hills. He also bought works by William Glackens, Childe Hassam, John Marin, and Moses Soyer, and snapped up active artists still making their reputations, like Jack Beal. The museum’s collection now includes work by Ed Paschke, Arthur Dove, and Elaine de Kooning. And over the course of four decades Brauer has rallied the people of Valparaiso to his cause, from the scores of students he’s taught to the townspeople he’s recruited as docents to the local woman who shows up every week, unbidden, to tend the museum’s plants.

“It takes a while to build that kind of community,” Brauer explains. “You have to have longevity.”

The Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University is open 10 AM to 5 PM Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, 10 AM to 8:30 PM Wednesdays, and noon to 5 PM Saturdays and Sundays. A pair of exhibitions showcasing American art from the permanent collection runs through late August. “Prints and Processes From the Salvador Dali Museum and the Graphicstudio” opens September 8. For more information call 219-464-5365.

–Andrew Santella

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Richard Brauer with portraits by Junius R. Sloan and gallery photos by Lloyd DeGrane.