Back when I was a daily newspaper sports editor in Michigan, I’d be sure to assign myself to cover a couple of Notre Dame football games each season. No, I wasn’t a fan of the Fighting Irish football team — “no cheering in the press box” is the sportswriter’s creed — but I was a fan of the campus.
I’d arrive early, park near the elevator that reporters and VIPs could ride to the press box and other enclosed seating areas, then I’d walk a lap of Saint Mary’s Lake, stop at the Grotto for a silent prayer, look up (yes, in awe) at the Golden Dome, and then wander over to the Knights of Columbus building where I could trade $4 for a substantial steak sandwich, a bag of chips and a can of pop.
About that time the band would be out on the lawn practicing its halftime performance. After lunch I’d do a lap through the campus book store, to see what new journalism texts were being used, and then I’d head to the football stadium. But instead of going directly to the stadium, I’d always — yes, always — make a detour.
Often, I’d get to the press box and other reporters who had seen my car would ask where I’d been. When I told them I was at the art museum, they’d just roll their eyes. I’d tell them they didn’t know what they were missing, that there was much more to life than tackles and touchdowns.
My detour was to the school’s Snite Museum of Art, which is just across a campus street from the football stadium and always has a fine and fascinating array of artwork to be seen. And sometimes that art includes automobiles.
I remember going to an exhibition featuring sports cars and right now, through November 20, “3 from the 30s: Classic Cars from the Heartland” showcases three luxury cars produced despite the Depression — a 1934 Auburn 1250 V12 salon cabriolet, a 1934 Packard 1109 Twelve convertible Victoria and a 1938 Packard 1607-1139 Twelve convertible coupe.
The Auburn has Hollywood history; it was featured in The Mayor of Hell starring James Cagney.
“The University of Notre Dame has historical interests in automobile design,” it notes in the 3 from the 30s brochure, explaining that the Department of Art, Art History, and Design was where Virgil Exner, Virgil Exner Jr. and others studied before launching their careers as car designers.
The cars — and some of the ribbons and trophies they’ve won, including best in class at Pebble Beach — are from the Jack B. Smith Jr. Automobile Collection. Jack and Laura Smith are Notre Dame benefactors, establishing and Endowment for Excellence in Performing Arts, supporting the summer Shakespeare program, supporting a business school fellowship, the Smith Library Collection in Business and teaching labs at the science hall.
Their cars and sculptural trophies look right at home in an art museum, as have other exhibitions of automobiles at museums in major cities, and as they will from October 1 through January 15 when “Rolling Sculpture: Art Deco Cars from the 1930s and ‘40s” is featured at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.
But if you visit the Snite this fall to see the cars, be sure to allot enough time to take in the other art as well. The museum has three floors of galleries and, yes, there is religious art, but there also are Native American, sculpture, Spanish colonial, Mesoamerican and South American, Western American, African and contemporary art, and more, in fact, much more.
So come for the cars, but stay for the art, or perhaps I should say, the other art.
The Snite Museum of Art is located on the campus of the University of Notre Dame and is open daily except Mondays and major holidays. For information, visit the museum’s website. South Bend, Indiana, also is the location of the Studebaker National Museum. The RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum is just a couple of toll-road exits to the east and Hostetler’s Hudson Auto Museum is only another 25 miles farther east in Shipshewana.
Larry Edsall photos