St. Petersburg calling Helen Drutt

The octagonal table by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings in Drutt's dining room was acquired at Strawbridge's for a song about 1956. The head is by Gertraud Mohwald. Both will be in the Hermitage Museum exhibition.
The octagonal table by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings in Drutt's dining room was acquired at Strawbridge's for a song about 1956. The head is by Gertraud Mohwald. Both will be in the Hermitage Museum exhibition. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 27, 2013

You could say the story began with a hat.

By twists and turns, it passed through the furniture displays on the seventh floor of the now-defunct Strawbridge & Clothier department store on Market Street, out to an antiques emporium in King of Prussia, back to a house near Rittenhouse Square, and will eventually end up in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, the repository for accumulated treasures of the czars and subsequent Russian elites.

Helen Drutt, pillar of the contemporary American craft movement, director and cofounder of the Philadelphia Council of Professional Craftsmen, gallery owner, collector extraordinaire of everything from refrigerator magnets and snow globes to ceramics by Rudolf Staffel, furniture by George Nakashima and Wharton Esherick, drawings by Manfred Bischoff, sculptural work by Ruth Duckworth, Arlene Love, Mark Burns, and Robert Arneson, will now find her agglomeration of a lifetime on display at the Hermitage.

Before that, for the first time ever, she will lend furniture and other pieces for a show about furniture maker and metalworker Paul Evans that begins March 1 at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, then travels to Michigan's Cranbrook Art Museum.

But that show encompasses only a fraction of what will go from Drutt's Philadelphia house to the city of white nights on the banks of the Neva River nearly half a world away.

The Hermitage wants to take her entire dining room - the octagonal table by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, acquired at Strawbridge's for a song about 1956; a large white porcelain sculpture by Ruth Duckworth that folds and curves its way along a wall; six ceramic figures by Robert Arneson; a head by Gertraud Mohwald; and silk pieces by Drutt's own grandmother. All of it.

"It is pretty amazing," Drutt, 83, said the other day as she zipped back and forth from one piece to another, clambered up and down the stairs of her double house, ventured into library rooms filled with volumes on ceramics and artists, all the time talking, telephoning, handing out tasks to her longtime assistant Mihai Burlacu, greeting visitors, talking, talking, talking.

And oh, by the way, she's also pulling together a sheaf of gifts, contemporary work by American artists and artisans, to be given to the Hermitage, which is celebrating its 250th anniversary in 2014.

The gifts - which will include several pieces by Jill Bonovitz, Mark Burns, Bill Daley, Richard DeVore, Wayne Higby, Rudolf Staffel, Lisbeth Stewart, Robert Winokur, Paula Winokur, Judith Schaechter, Judy Onofrio, Breon O'Casey, and many others, donated by American artists and collectors - will go on view toward the end of 2014; they will then enter the Hermitage's permanent collection.

The Drutt Dining Room, as well as selected pieces from elsewhere in her home, will go on display in Russia in 2015 and eventually return to her packed Philadelphia townhouse.

"Isn't this a wonderful thing?" said Drutt, well turned out in black hat and skirt, carved walrus-tusk necklace, broad silver bracelets around both wrists. "Isn't it a wonderful thing that so many people in our city will be represented in a Russian museum for the first time?"

But how did it happen?

Drutt had no involvement with the Hermitage at all when she attended a talk and reception at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010.

"I was wearing a hat, and someone at the reception came over to me and introduced herself. She liked my hat, she thought it was very stylish," Drutt recalled. The hat was a turbanlike affair with thin black plastic plumes rising from the front. Very Roaring Twenties.

The someone happened to be Chauncie Rodzianko, a member of the board of the Hermitage Museum Foundation, a U.S.-based private nonprofit formed to support the Hermitage. Rodzianko's husband, Paul, a businessman with interests across Russia, is chairman of the foundation's board of directors.

In no time Hermitage officials, on a trip to the United States led by museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky, found themselves hosted for breakfast by Drutt and her husband, Peter Stern, cofounder of the Storm King Art Center in the Hudson Valley.

"It was all very casual, all very serendipitous," Drutt said. "They had a great time."

Serendipity led to a visit to Drutt's home by the Hermitage's curator of porcelain, Tina Khmelnitskaya, who fell in love with American ceramics and crafts. She was followed in late fall of 2012 by the museum's curator of decorative arts, Tamara Rappe.

When Rappe entered Drutt's living room and saw a 17th-century German chest, and a 20th-century Paul Evans pipe table a few feet away, as well as an array of Rudolf Staffel vessels, a Nakashima stool tucked in a corner, the Phillip Lloyd Powell floating shelves, the Esherick music stand, and all the rest, she knew she was in an unusual setting.

But the dining room just about knocked her out.

A month later, Drutt traveled to St. Petersburg to lecture at the museum's invitation, and met with director Piotrovsky.

"We went into Piotrovsky's room, which is very long, very baronial, and he's sitting there and he's talking to me, he wanted to thank me," Drutt recalled of the December 2012 meeting. "And then he looked at me and said, 'My curator wants to exhibit your dining room at the Hermitage.' And he said, 'I want you to know I like the idea of being the first European museum to show a post-World War II American room. She would like everything to be in there. The ceramics, the silver, the furniture.'

"I was a little blown away by that," Drutt said.

Paul Rodzianko said the quality of the Drutt collection was irresistible to the Hermitage, which lately has turned its attention to 20th- and 21st-century work: "I think the caliber of the collection and Helen's depth of knowledge became instantly apparent to [curator] Tamara [Rappe] when she arrived at the house." (Drutt and her son, Matthew, a New York art adviser and consultant who assisted in talks with the Hermitage, are both now on the foundation's advisory board.)

Drutt recalls director Piotrovsky telling her, "You know, all over America there are European rooms." She says, "He said, 'You go into the Met, you go into Boston, you go into Philadelphia, you have a French room, you have a German room, you have Pennsylvania Dutch rooms. But . . . a room of American crafts has never been exhibited in Europe and I would like to be the first museum.'

"And that's what happened."


ssalisbury@phillynews.com

215-854-5594

@SPSalisbury

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