A Decade in the Making

Hallie Ford Museum of Art Unveils Landmark “Breath of Heaven, Breath of Earth” Exhibit

When John Olbrantz was hired to direct the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in 1998, he couldn’t let himself dream too big.

There was no money to launch a grand exhibition, let alone hire the staff he needed.

But that didn’t stop him from pursuing what he felt the museum could and should be. The facility is housed in a former telephone company building that was bought and remodeled with $3.5 million in grants — $2 million of which was gifted by the Ford Family Foundation. Using connections throughout the U.S. and a $1 million endowment fund established by Hallie Ford in 2004, Olbrantz and Willamette faculty curators have launched several notable exhibitions over the years that have featured everything from classical and Egyptian art to Maori weaving and Renaissance drawings.

The newest exhibition, “Breath of Heaven, Breath of Earth,” has personal significance for Olbrantz. On Aug. 31, a decade after Olbrantz began visualizing the project, “Breath of Heaven, Breath of Earth” opened to introduce patrons to objects that date back to the beginning of recorded history.

It’s dedicated to his best friend, Jim Romano, an art curator who died in a car crash in 2003.

The two organized an Egyptian exhibition at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in 2002 but never had the opportunity to showcase their planned second exhibition of ancient Near Eastern art.

Great Expectations

The exhibition was assembled through loans from more than 20 notable institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. All artifacts originated from the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East and date from 6000 BCE to 500 BCE.

“These cultures gave Western civilization the concepts of cities, schools, writing and the alphabet,” Olbrantz says. “We owe a tremendous debt to the civilizations of the Near East.”

The exhibition ties together the divine, human and animal realms — uniting the region’s diverse cultures.

“Every culture has their own gods and goddesses, kings and queens, warriors and hunters,” Olbrantz says. “Every culture has animals, whether they’re supernatural, mythical or real.”

But finding pieces that represented each culture proved to be an almost impossible challenge, Olbrantz says. Alongside Trudy Kawami, director of research at the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, he spent six years meeting and talking with curators on the East Coast to identify what objects were needed for the exhibition and to research where such objects were located.

The result is a wide range of pieces, from the head of Gudea, one of the earliest examples of royal portraiture, to a relief from Nineveh depicting a battle scene.

There’s a 10-inch-tall figure of a Sumerian priest worshipper and a glazed ceramic lion from ancient Nuzi in Mesopotamia, on loan from the University of Pennsylvania.

“It has been challenging, frustrating and immensely rewarding,” Olbrantz says about assembling the show. “You’d have to travel thousands of miles to see an exhibition of this caliber.”

How Do They Get Here?

Transporting such valuable pieces of art can be a complicated and tense process. It’s not enough to trust the tracking or handling of a private shipping company; many pieces arrive in the hands of private couriers.


Male figure; Iraq, excavated from the Nintu Temple, Level VI at Khafaje, Mid-to-Late Early Dynastic Period, 2700–2500 BCE; alabaster; shell, and lapis lazuli; H: 9 in. (23 cm), W: 3 1/8 in. (8 cm), D: 2 3/4 in. (7 cm); University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, Joint Baghdad School/University Museum Expedition to Mesopotamia, 1937, 37-15-28. Photo: Penn Museum image no. 152346.

Visit the Exhibition

“Breath of Heaven, Breath of Earth” is on display Aug. 31–Dec. 22

at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, 700 State St., Salem OR.

Hours: Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., and Sunday, 1–5 p.m.

For more details visit: willamette.edu/go/ancient