Thursday, June 30, 2011

Rules of Attraction (and Organization) or, Interning @ Fenimore Art Museum, Part 4

By Emma Porter, Curatorial Intern

I have been introduced to the realm of illustrated checklists and I am never looking back. Art museum professionals, not surprisingly, are visual learners, and these documents greatly help orient the museum professional to the works involved, the artist(s), and contexts. I was shown how to create an illustrated checklist, first in an Excel spreadsheet format, then in a Word document format. Here is a sample from the checklist for Fenimore Art Museum's William Matthew Prior Revealed: Artist and Visionary, for the 2012 season.

Mary Cary and Susan Elizabeth Johnson, 1848
William Matthew Prior
Terra Foundation

This image is under the section titled The Painting Garret – 36 Trenton Street, East Boston. Jackie Oak, of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont has organized this exhibit according to Prior’s personal life stages and periods of certain inspiration. For example, one section is about Abolitionism and another about Spiritualism.

I am currently completing an illustrated checklist for Michelle to use during her upcoming visit to the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Her visit is to inform the Fenimore Art Museum’s upcoming American Impressionism exhibition. If you love American Impressionism I would encourage you to visit or just check out their online database.

Dogwood Blossoms, 1906
Williard Leroy Metcalf
Florence Griswold Museum

My illustrated checklist for American Impressionism is essentially a long series of images in order of the artist. Each artist entry begins with their personal information and details. Once these checklists are completed they serve as the founding reference document for the show.

I love organizing and greatly appreciate a good organizational system when I see one. Museum registrars and curators are champions of organizations to put it modestly. Every single work must go through the registrar. Christine Olsen is the FAM Registrar. She records every work that comes into or leaves the Museum, whether it's coming or going temporarily or permanently. Without the registrar the museum could barely operate and would be almost impossible to navigate. I sincerely enjoy compiling these lists. I get to familiarize myself with the artist and their work while letting my organizational flag fly!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Getting from P to P

By Chris Rossi, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

Prendergast to Pollock: American Modernism from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute  represents a change in the usual exhibit fare for the Fenimore Art Museum. This foray into modernism comes from the collection of Edward W. Root, a native of Clinton New York, who had a keen eye for the emerging 20th century American art scene.

Mary Murray (facing camera) leading the tour

The works are colorful, engaging and sometimes challenging. Fortunately Mary Murray, curator of modern and contemporary art at the MWPAI, was on hand to give a Food For Thought tour and expand my understanding of modernism. Mary explained that over the course of the 20th century artists were making a move from strictly representational works to more abstract views and expressions of what they were painting. Traditional realistically rendered scenes or figures gave way to canvases with flat and abstracted views where paint, color, form, and sometimes the action of painting itself were central to the art.

Landscape with Figures, ca. 1912
Maurice Prendergast
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York

Jackson Pollock's Number 20 and Number 34, as seen in Fenimore Art Museum

The exhibit is a mini-course in that progression. It starts with Maurice Prendergast’s colorful Landscape with Figures and ends with two very abstract action paintings by Jackson Pollock. The experience is an enlightening journey through American Modernism as it developed and came into its own in the 20th century.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Interning @ Fenimore Art Museum, Part 3

By Emma Porter, Curatorial Intern

How do art exhibitions happen? It’s kind of like asking how Disney World makes the magic happen. Art museum exhibitions are a cultural happening that the majority of society takes for granted. Unless you get an inside look into how a curatorial team conceives organizes, and produces an exhibition. Then this invisible world becomes very real. Curators make magic happen everyday across the world; these professionals are storytellers. They tell their stories with artworks, artists biographies, historical contexts, and other facets of culture and aesthetics, from the past and present. Curators must be excellent editors and stay focused on conveying a specific story, without dismissing its place within broader cultural themes.

The first day I started interning, the Director of Exhibitions, Michelle Murdock, generously loaned me a set of books to give me an introduction into museum work. The “Bible” for museum workers is Introduction to Museum Work by G. Ellis Burcaw. It literally defines museum work with a set of definitions, including what a “museum object” is, how objects are registered and catalogued, how objects are accessioned (“the acquiring of one or more objects at one time from one source, or the objects so acquired”), and collecting theories for different types of museums.

One of the most valuable and eye-opening experiences for me at the Fenimore Art Museum is observing Eva Fognell, Curator of the Thaw Collection, and Chris Rossi, Associate Curator of Exhibitions, put together the Thaw Homecoming exhibition for the 2012 season. This involves them filling in the floor plan with the sections that best suit the space and the story they were telling. They conversed as they edited how the pieces would be displayed and situated. Some pieces can stand by themselves and make a grand statement. Others need to be grouped together in order to communicate their purpose and context. Not all of the pieces currently travelling will be shown in the exhibition - some will be put back into the permanent collection. A cool fact is that returning pieces need to “rest,” or acclimatize, for twenty-four hours in order to adjust to the environment and thus prevent damage. Much care is put into these object’s “health.” So on many levels, museum work is a labor of love!

After editing, the floor plan was finalized and the works were listed. I am currently learning how to write section labels, and how to incorporate images into these labels in order to deepen the viewer’s understanding of the object. When I look for label images, in the case of a basket, for example, I would look for a photograph of a man or woman making a similar style basket, or the materials from which the basket is made from.

Learning how an exhibition happens is like going behind the scenes of a fantasy world, where I had previously only seen the pristine and yes, magical, end product. I get butterflies thinking about these sneak peaks into a once invisible world. I am lucky enough to get an up close and personal experience with the makers and the makings of this magic.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A small totem pole

By Eva Fognell, Curator of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art

Fenimore Art Museum recently received a small argillite totem pole from a generous donor in Princeton, New Jersey. It is a charming little carving about 6.25” tall. It was made by a Haida artist in the late 1800s. The Haida people live on Haida Gwaii, formerly known as Queen Charlotte Island, off the coast of British Columbia. Haida people started making bowls, plates, small totem poles and other types of souvenirs in argillite in the mid 1800s. Argillite is soft when first quarried but later hardens over time.

Julie, a CGP graduate student, spent some time researching the pole and trying to determine what animals were carved on its front. It turned out to be quite tricky since she could not find a photo of a pole with any exact match to the figures on our pole. We finally settled on what we think the images are starting from the bottom: a small human crouching, then an eagle, bear, killer whale, and then an eagle on top. If anyone out there is well versed in Haida traditional stories and knows if this pole has a story please let me know. In the meantime we will continue searching for more information about our new acquisition.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Lord Jeffrey Takes Manhattan

By Douglas Kendall, Curator of Collections

Many of my posts focus on rarely-seen objects in the Fenimore Art Museum collections. All museums have great objects in storage, but today I’m writing about a desk-and-bookcase in our collection that’s almost always on exhibition, just 3 hours away from our Museum.

Wood, brass.
Made for W. & J. Sloane, New York, NY, 1926.
Museum Purchase, acquired with funds given by Horace Moses., N0003.1994. Photo: Douglas Kendall

It could be a long story, but suffice it to say that our parent organization, the New York State Historical Association, was headquartered in Ticonderoga, New York from 1926 through 1939, in a building commissioned for the purpose by Horace Moses, a paper company executive who had grown up in Ticonderoga. The building was an exact replica of the Thomas Hancock House, which was built in Boston in 1737 but was demolished in 1863 after the failure of an early attempt at historic preservation. Moses furnished the building with reproductions of colonial and Federal period American furniture, acquired from W. & J. Sloane of New York City.

Today, the building is still owned by NYSHA but is operated as a museum and research center by the Ticonderoga Historical Society. Although THS exhibits its own collections, NYSHA still owns many objects in the building, including the Colonial Revival furniture by the Sloane firm. The gem of this collection is a monumental desk-and-bookcase that features a bust of the British general Lord Jeffery Amherst on the pediment. Amherst was a prominent and controversial British general. His forces captured Fort Ticonderoga in 1759 during the French and Indian Wars.

When the Sloane furniture was acquired for Hancock House, it was intended to be used. But now, over 80 years later, the Colonial Revival is a subject of historical study and Colonial Revival furniture is sought after by museums and collectors. This month, the Museum of the City of New York is opening an exhibition called The American Style: Colonial Revival and the Modern Metropolis and NYSHA’s desk-and-bookcase is a key element in the show. This week I drove to Ticonderoga to meet the THS curator, Bill Dolback and oversee the packing and shipping of the desk by Chad and Josh of Bonsai Fine Arts. It is no mean feat to dismantle a piece like this and then wrap it safely for the 5-hour drive to Manhattan. We discovered some interesting construction details in the process of packing. For example, the interior cubby holes in the upper section are actually an insert that can be fully removed to allow the top and bottom to be separated.

Lord Jeffery will be on exhibition in New York from June 14 through October 30. After that he will once again be on view at Hancock House in Ticonderoga. In either location, he’s well worth a visit.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Interning @ Fenimore Art Museum, Part 2

By Emma Porter, Curatorial Intern

Yesterday I spent time exploring the traveling exhibition organized by the Fenimore Art Museum called Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection. I read over the beautifully compiled and designed exhibition book with the same title.

The Fenimore has lent pieces from its outstanding Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art (which it received in 1995 from the Sante Fe based couple). Mr. Eugene Thaw was an art connoisseur, dealer, and collector who amassed a collection of more than 850 objects! The exhibition has so far been exhibited by the Cleveland Art Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and is now on view at the Dallas Museum of Art. On December 4th, 2011 it will open at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

A great quote from Eugene Thaw that Eva Fognell includes in her Introduction to the book is: “I want to stress that I look at Indian material culture as art. To me, it is co-equal to any of my own highest experiences in pursuing the art of many nations both as dealer and collector. It stands rightfully with ancient art, with masterpieces of Asia and Europe, as their equivalent, and I wish it would be looked at this way”.

I am learning how the art museum loan process works and the many details it entails; such as the correspondence between the organizer (The Fenimore Art Museum) and the exhibitor (Dallas Art Museum, for example) and the types of paperwork and agreements it involves. As I looked at the exhibition photos taken by Cleveland and Minneapolis, I realized how differently curators interpret a collection, from the script to the lighting and wall colors. These two museums had different emphases, and in turn communicated these in a variety of aesthetic ways. I am so excited to gain further understanding of the art museum loan process and how travelling exhibitions work from an organizer’s view and an exhibitor’s view. I am particularly thrilled by how curators have different interpretations and presentations of collections, and all tell different stories to the public.

As I dive further into the Thaw Collection, from understanding the objects within their own contexts to how they are important for the art world and society as a whole, I expect to gain a wider and deeper view of the cultural history of American art.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Interning @ Fenimore Art Museum

By Emma Porter, Curatorial Intern

Hi! My name is Emma Porter and I am a volunteer curatorial intern at the Fenimore Art Museum this summer. In December, I will graduate from S.U.N.Y Geneseo as an art history major. I am very excited to share my experience as an intern and hope it creates a space for learning, discussion and exploration.

All of the staff here at Fenimore are so helpful and they all work together as a team. Communication is critical to everyone here, and that is what makes this museum so prolific and run so effectively. For example, I was given my internship projects at a table with the Director of Exhibitions, Michelle Murdock, Associate Curator of Exhibitions, Chris Rossi and Preparator, Stephen Loughman. Each project was explained to me thoroughly and there was active dialogue amongst all of us. I love the communication; it does make the world go around! Something Michelle told me my first day was that I should look at museums and, all of my surroundings for that matter, as a curator. This is a different way of seeing and I am confident that by the end of my internship here, I will be able to “see” like a curator.  There is a lot to look forward to this summer at the Fenimore, and I cannot wait to visit in the fall and in 2012 to see the final products of our research and planning.

Also notable is the close tie between the Fenimore and The Farmers’ Museum, a rural life museum that gives an up close and personal view of life in the 19th century in New York. I love the stoneware collection in the Herkimer Kitchen and the wallpaper in the Jonas More House. When you visit, be sure to take time to pet the baby sheep in the Smith Morey Barn.

Currently at the Feimore, there is the A Window into Edward Hopper exhibition in the Scriven Gallery on the second floor. It tells the story of what Hopper chose to focus on in the places he temporarily or permanently resided in New England, such as Gloucester, MA and Rockland, ME. His wife Jo was his main model for his well-known works depicting lonely people in Manhattan cityscapes and desolate interiors. The Glimmerglass Festival, just down the road from Fenimore, is adopting the opera called Later The Same Evening which is based on five on Hopper’s paintings from is Manhattan period. The exhibition at Fenimore was developed in conjunction with the Festival's production.


I am currently looking at the work of Tasha Tudor, an icon for the “home-grown,” and “back to the old way” lifestyle. Tudor lived in Vermont and aimed to mimic a life from the rural 1830s. The Fenimore is planning an exhibition of her paintings, drawings, and holiday cards, along with other artifacts from her life. It is obvious how Tudor’s work and lifestyle are relevant to both the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers’ Museum. I am looking through her images that the Fenimore is borrowing from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA, and figuring out how to tie in images from the Farmers’ Museum with the labels that will be in Fenimore. For example, the label for Tudor’s In April the Birds Return (below) could feature a photograph of two of The Farmers’ Museum’s own oxen yolked and plowing the farm field.

Children and gardens are prevalent in Tudor's work. Gardens can be seen as a metaphor for the intellectual and physical growth of children. Tudor published a Caldecott Honor children’s book that counts to ten using flowers. The Farmers’ Museum has a children’s garden near the Dimmick House. To provide an connection between the Fenimore and the Farmers’ Museum, I think a children’s gardening workshop that incorporates Tudor’s work, especially her children’s books illustrations, would be a lot of fun.

I'll keep you posted as my internship progresses!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Head Start Day

By Nancy Pfau, Museum Teacher

On top of all the other special reasons to visit the Fenimore Art Museum, the magnificent floral arrangements are a constant delight, changing dramatically as the seasons ripen from Spring to Summer to Fall!

May 10th was Head Start Day at the museum, a day when local Head Start students are invited to bring a parent or guardian with them to tour the collection. A rare treat for the docents, as well, to see the museum through the eyes of 3 and 4 year old children!

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