Art: Delaware Art Museum and how it grew

"100 Works for 100 Years" is a treasure hunt of gifts, bequests, and purchases that built the collection.

Posted: August 05, 2012

One of the worst habits that a museumgoer can acquire is spending more time reading labels than looking at the works of art they describe.

Yet in the case of "100 Works for 100 Years" at the Delaware Art Museum, reading is, oddly, just as important as looking, if not more so. That's because the story this exhibition tells is mainly concerned with how the 100 works entered the museum's collection and, in the larger context, how all art museums grow.

It's an unorthodox show in another way, not gathered together in the special exhibitions space but distributed throughout the building, even overflowing into the Copeland sculpture garden.

As if on a treasure hunt, visitors proceed with a map-checklist. With one noteworthy exception, all 100 objects are found in the galleries where they normally reside; each is identified by a special label, easily recognized.

It's these labels that explain how the museum acquired each object, through gift, bequest, or purchase. This year is the museum's centennial, and each work in the show represents an increment in that timeline - the year it entered the collection.

It soon becomes clear that the majority of acquisitions are gifts or bequests; few museums can afford to buy much of anything that's worth bragging about. Furthermore, a few major gifts prove to be the catalysts around which the collection accrues, like a coral colony.

That said, it's interesting that the Delaware Art Museum began life in 1912 with a purchase paid for by donations from community patrons. After famed Wilmington illustrator Howard Pyle died unexpectedly in late 1911, a group of his students, admirers, and friends founded the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts as a memorial, and seeded it with 128 paintings from his studio that they bought from the artist's widow.

Thus the notion that the community was invested in the institution was intrinsic, an idea reinforced in 1935 when the family of Samuel Bancroft Jr., a local mill owner who died in 1915, donated his collection of Pre-Raphaelite art. This splendid collection, the museum's centerpiece, gave what is otherwise a regional institution a measure of national stature, and no doubt attracted other important gifts.

One of these, a group of more than 5,000 works, came from Helen Farr Sloan, widow of the noted American realist John Sloan, who had Philadelphia roots. Her gift, which included an extensive archive, transformed the museum into a center for Sloan research. Sloan is represented in the exhibition by a typical subject from his so-called Ashcan period, a 1911 painting called Wet Night on the Bowery.

After a century, the museum's collection has burgeoned to about 12,000 works. A number of these are top-drawer, such as Edward Hopper's oil Summertime, given in 1962 by Dora Sexton Brown, sister of Wilmington collector John L. Sexton.

Besides Sloan and Hopper, other 20th-century realists such as Reginald Marsh, William Glackens, and Robert Henri enhance the museum's concentration on American art. The Brandywine school, which Pyle founded, is amply represented by a number of his works and others by N.C. and Andrew Wyeth and John McCoy.

A particular prize in the contemporary section is one of Deborah Butterfield's horse sculptures, a weathered red-steel number titled Riot, purchased in 1991 from the F.V. du Pont acquisition fund.

Perhaps the museum's most celebrated acquisition, aside from the entire Bancroft collection itself, is a chair created in 1856-57 by the arts and crafts designer William Morris and Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Money to buy it in 1997 also came from the du Pont fund, and from a bequest from Doris Wright Anderson.

One hundred years on, the tradition of enlightened benefaction continues. This year Washington, D.C., residents Ainslie and J. Keith Peoples have promised 25 pieces of arts and crafts metalware, mostly lidded jugs and various lighting fixtures, created by the English designer William Arthur Smith Benson, a friend of William Morris.

These beautifully worked copper-and-brass pieces are displayed in various vitrines in an appropriate setting, the Pre-Raphaelite galleries, which Mr. Peoples, an architect, learned about from relatives in Delaware. By themselves they're worth a visit.

Craft spoken where? "Craft Spoken Here," in its final weeks at the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Perelman building, contains some beautiful pieces among its 41 contemporary objects, but because it's based on a dubious assumption it leaves one not only unsatisfied but even a bit annoyed.

The assumption is that any object made of certain materials - most commonly clay, glass, metal, wood, or fiber - is generically defined as "craft." Unfortunately, curator Elisabeth Agro doesn't tell her audience how "craft" is defined. Consequently, it's difficult to cut through the ambiguity in order to intelligently interpret what one is seeing.

Most of what I encountered in the Perelman's main gallery is sculpture, pure and simple. If "craft" involves technical mastery of a material to create a form traditionally associated with function, then some pieces qualify.

Haecho Chung's gorgeous red lacquerware bowl is certainly one example, as are Lino Tagliapietra's striped glasses. Some artists maintain functional references in forms that are otherwise purely aesthetic, as Bennett Bean does with a fractured, exuberantly patterned bowl form.

But much of the work, regardless of medium, is essentially sculpture. This is true, for instance, of Rudolf Staffel's bronze Tree Chalice, extrapolated from a liturgical vessel. So why not say so?

What Agro achieves in this exercise is to reinforce stereotypes about a perceived distinction between "craft" (the subordinate category) and "art" (fine and decorative) without supplying any defining characteristics of either. Admittedly, that would be difficult to do, but then why pose a question without at least attempting to offer an answer?

Some day far in the future, these distinctions will seem both academic and inconsequential, as they are now for art from antiquity. Are Greek vases "craft" or "art," or both? No one would think to ask such a question, so why, then, is "craft" being spoken here?


Art: Tales in Two Cities

100 Works for 100 Years is at the Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Pkwy., Wilmington, through Sept. 16. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays, noon to 4 Sundays. Admission: $12 general, $10 for visitors 60 and older, $6 for students with ID and visitors 6 through 18. Free Sundays. 302-571-9590 or www.delart.org.

Craft Spoken Here is in the Perelman building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fairmount Avenue at 26th Street, through Aug. 12. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission: $7 general, $6 for seniors, students with ID, and visitors 13 to 18. 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.


Contact Edward Sozanski at edward.sozanski@gmail.com.

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