Commercial photography has been Gene Sasse’s bread and butter. During his 45 years in the business he has specialized in location photography, most often for real estate developers. But Sasse is a man of many interests, including the fine art side of things. He’s been known to take noncommercial photos of subjects that give him a chance to express himself more intimately.
For about 10 years now, Sasse, a member of the Riverside CCD Faculty Association, has been letting students in on his secrets at college campuses in the Inland Empire area of Southern California, including Riverside City College and Mt. San Antonio College. Students have been getting the inside scoop on lighting, framing, composition, and making good photographs better. It’s become somewhat of a passion for him, and he prides himself on the results his students achieve.
Another passion that sets Sasse apart: He is the founder of the Inland Empire Museum of Art (IEMA).
He explains that one day in 2013 he was reflecting on works by noted Inland Empire artists like Milford Zornes and Millard Sheets. “I realized that although their works could be seen from time to time in the area, thanks to traveling shows or special exhibits, there wasn’t anywhere locally that housed a permanent collection. And as I thought some more, I realized I had met dozens of fine artists in the Inland Empire — painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers and others — whose works were seldom seen. That’s when I came up with the crazy idea of starting a museum that would focus on art by Inland Empire artists. I saw this as a way to inspire and educate, as well as get people to appreciate what a wealth of locally produced art was being done right in our own backyard.”
“ I saw this as a way to inspire and educate, as well as get people to appreciate what a wealth of locally produced art was being done right in our own backyard.”
— Gene Sasse
Sasse started putting together the paperwork. He contacted a number of artists and collectors, and before long had amassed a collection of over 250 pieces. In 2016 IEMA received its recognition as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The collection has now grown to more than 800 pieces.
“It has turned out that it’s not exclusively Inland Empire artists and not always contemporary work, either,” Sasse says. “Certainly, the overwhelming majority of the collection fits that description, but we even have some pieces from the Renaissance, and noncontemporary but modern works as well.”
The one thing the museum has lacked is a home. Since the founding, Sasse has been using his own photography studio in Upland as home base for the museum. He and his stalwart band of volunteers and board members curate rotating collections, organized according to theme. Shows are mounted on a regular basis, always with openings and often enhanced by panel discussions of the works on view. Turnout for the openings and discussions is small but enthusiastic. And growing.
Sasse has been able to put the show on the road, assembling various collections for display at venues in the Inland Empire. The largest to date was held April 2015 at the Los Angeles County Fairplex in Pomona, which attracted hundreds of viewers and was featured on the local PBS station.
Since then, Sasse has provided showings at San Bernardino Valley College and Crafton Hills College, the two campuses of the San Bernardino Community College District. SBCCD Chancellor Bruce Baron says, “I was frankly surprised at the depth and breadth of the IEMA collection. The quality of the art on display was a revelation to me and, I’m sure, to the hundreds of students and community members who came to view the work at our two college galleries.”
Both shows were completely different in subject matter and served to showcase the museum’s diversity. Just recently Azusa Pacific University let Sasse know that it will host an exhibit of IEMA’s collection of Edward Weston prints in 2019.
Sasse schedules regular “Art Talks” — an extension of IEMA’s education and exhibition programming to inform, educate and engage, which also includes the museum’s contemporary art video channel, IEMAtv, presenting both curated and original videos.
IEMA is becoming known for the broader arts. At the interim home of the museum, Sasse hosts workshops and classes on a variety of topics, including drawing and writing flash fiction. At the Corona-Norco Unified School District Arts Festival in March, IEMA held mask-making workshops. Teachers from the district used IEMA’s collection, “Presidential Images: America’s Leaders.” (The collection can be viewed here.)
Greg Zerovnik has a Ph.D. in media psychology and is an experienced marketer in the for-profit, nonprofit and governmental sectors. He currently teaches for MBA programs at CSU Monterey Bay and the California Institute of Advanced Management, and hosts a blog at mediainmind.net.