The pandemic has had at least one good result: accessibility to museum collections. Shelburne Museum is among the institutions that have successfully organized online exhibitions instead of or in addition to physical exhibitions.
Since spring 2020, the museum’s website has presented nine virtual exhibitions, each with an opening in the form of a webinar moderated by the curator. Once recorded, webinars can be viewed at any time alongside the exhibit; most stay on site for a year. And more online shows are coming, pandemic or not, even as the 45-acre campus physically opens in May.
The latest online exhibition, “Our collection: Electra Havemeyer Webb, Edith Halpert and American Folk Art“, had its virtual opening on February 9. Conceived and written by associate curator Carolyn Bauer, it focuses on a dynamic duo: the museum’s founder and its source for (mostly) folk art sculpture, a New York Art. The exhibition marks the beginning of a series celebrating the museum’s 75th anniversary, hence the focus on some of the institution’s origin story.
“Our Collection” is also linked to an upcoming physical exhibition: a reinstallation in the Stagecoach Inn of the sculptures Webb purchased from Halpert, co-curated by Bauer, senior curator Kory Rogers and curator Katie Wood Kirchhoff.
Webb, a wealthy socialite, and Halpert, a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant who grew up in New York, met in the late 1930s, when Webb was about 50 and Halpert 12 years her junior. Webb’s interest in folk art began with her purchase of a cigar shop figurine in 1907, when she was 19 years old. This decision dismayed his parents, who collected works of art from Europe and Asia.
Meanwhile, Halpert opened the first profitable art gallery in Greenwich Village, the Downtown Gallery, in 1926. It featured the works of modern American artists – Georgia O’Keeffe, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Jacob Lawrence and others – at a time when European art was still considered superior.
Three years later, Halpert opened the first-ever American folk art gallery upstairs. She featured items more often seen in antique stores – weather vanes, carved figurines, etc. – as works of art deserving aesthetic appreciation. Entering the mid-century era, Halpert began to show objects mounted individually on pedestals in rooms painted white, matching the minimalist style of the time.
According to Bauer, Halpert’s framing of folk art was unprecedented – and she succeeded. The gallery owner not only convinced famous collectors such as Webb and Abby Rockefeller to acquire American folk art for its aesthetic and historical value, but she also sold works to museums across the country. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., for example, purchased a large collection from Halpert during the Great Depression.
“Edith was truly groundbreaking in the way folk art was marketed,” Bauer said in a phone call. “She dusted it off from your grandmother’s attic and explained how you could look at these items through this different lens.”
Webb shared Halpert’s vision of the genre—an interest that would lead to the Shelburne Museum’s reputation as one of the nation’s leading collections of American folk art. But, as Bauer pointed out, “Everyone has folk art in their collections now. Everyone understands that it’s important.”
Webb made his first purchase from Halpert’s upstairs gallery in 1941: a carved and painted wooden bust of an Indian chief attributed to Samuel Anderson Robb circa 1880. It would likely have adorned the door lintel of a cigar store in Philadelphia. The sale cemented the women’s friendship, and over the next two decades—until Webb’s death in 1960—the museum founder purchased over 100 pieces of folk art from Halpert.
It was such a collaborative effort that Webb dubbed his folk art acquisitions “our collection” in a letter to Halpert, after the gallerist helped set him up in the newly opened Stagecoach Inn in 1949. ‘ve no idea how much I appreciate your coming here and working so hard on our collection (yours and mine),” Webb wrote.
The bust of the Indian chief is one of nine objects, out of more than 100, that Bauer has selected for the online exhibition. Today, Webb-Halpert objects make up only a tiny fraction of the museum’s holdings. But, as Bauer points out in the webinar, it was among the collections that the founder was “most passionate.”
It is not difficult to understand why. An eye-catching piece is the carved and painted wooden figure of Columbia, aka Lady Liberty, or the female personification of America, made by Henry Leach in 1879 for a weather vane maker in Waltham, Mass.
A marvel of windblown drapery, the figure reaches out with the elegant arm of a dancer while her voluminous belted toga – with a dangerously low neckline – stretches in the opposite direction. The sculpture, about four feet tall, appears to be a study in form and balance. (The online image cannot fully convey a sculptured work in the round.)
In the online text, Bauer describes two of the works she selected as “racist caricatures”: the Indian chief and “Nine Pins”, which refers to the six remaining pins (from a set of nine) carved out of clay. wood between 1867 and 1900. Although the chief has a smirk and direct gaze, his skin is painted dark red and he is adorned with a headdress of beads and feathers unrelated to authentic tribal attire.
The pin tops are sculpted into six individual busts, each with a unique expression and hairstyle; the lower half of each pin is a high boot painted black. The heads represent stereotypes, whether white woman or black or Asian man.
The element of racism in folk art is “something we hope to discuss further in relocation,” Bauer said. “It’s not those exact objects [that are racist] but the greater scope of how minorities were often viewed as stereotypes through exaggerated features or costumes. »
“Our Collection” includes a painting, “Penn’s Treaty with the Indians”, by self-taught artist Edward Hicks, circa 1840 to 1845. Webb purchased the work from Halpert, but the two women disagreed on folk art. paintings. Webb acquired most of her paintings from Maxim Karolik, a New York collector from whom she purchased over 100.
But Halpert’s influence was greater, Bauer said. “I would say that, despite everything, our folk art sculpture collection remains much stronger than folk art painting. Some paintings are fabulous, but we have a lot more of the crème de la crème in the sculpture collection. ”
The exhibition raises an interesting question: what exactly was the nature of a merchant-customer relationship that was also a friendship? In some cases, according to Bauer’s text, Halpert claimed not to want to influence her friend’s taste; in others, she clearly guided her and perhaps even put her under pressure.
This is speculation outside of Bauer’s finely crafted spectacle, however. What interests the curator, she says, is “to think about folk art as a whole, to understand the context in which Electra saw these works through Edith’s eyes. See how Edith did it is simply amazing.”