Monday, August 24, 2009

Trash Becomes Electra

There are only a few places in the United States where you can see large collections of classic American folk art. I mean the folk art that was collected in the early decades of the 20th century, when Americana enthusiasts were just beginning to realize how broad and diverse the country’s heritage really was. I spent last Friday at one of these destinations: the Shelburne Museum, in Shelburne, Vermont.

Founded by Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960), an heiress to the Havemeyer fortune, the museum includes much more than folk art. In her lifetime, Mrs. Webb acquired more than 150,000 pieces and relocated 25 historic buildings to her property in Shelburne. The result is a fascinating and wide-ranging romp through American material culture and architecture, not as a cohesive historic village like our own Farmers’ Museum, but as a collection of experiences, each very different from the one before.

Mrs. Webb started collecting folk art early by Americana standards, acquiring her first piece, a cigar store figure purchased for $15, in 1907. Her mother, Louisine Havemeyer, a collector of European and Asian art, saw the trade signs and cigar store figures that Electra had at her Long Island home and asked her: “How can you, Electra, you who have been brought up with Rembrandts and Manets, live with such American trash?”

Talk about the glorious results of a misspent youth. The Shelburne’s folk art collection can be seen in a number of different buildings at the museum, but most of the best pieces are in the Stagecoach Inn. The collection is stunning in its quality and breadth, and ranks right up there with our own collection at the Fenimore Art Museum in many categories. To be honest, it is better than our in some areas. For my own amusement, I did a quick and unscientific scorecard comparing our two collections, based upon what was on view and the pieces I could recall from past visits and publications.

Folk Art Scorecard: Fenimore vs. Shelburne

Portraits: Fenimore
Landscapes/townscapes: Fenimore
Schoolgirl art: Shelburne
Quilts: Shelburne
Sculpture: Shelburne
Ceramics (stoneware): Fenimore
Ceramics (redware): Shelburne
20th century: Fenimore

All in all, pretty evenly matched. The point for you, however, is not a useless and indefensible curatorial exercise. If you love folk art, these are two collections you must see, as they complement each other in many ways and are of very high quality. They are an important window into the lives of ordinary Americans, and prove beyond dispute that the academy has no monopoly on great art.

And it is even more fascinating to consider that, barely a century ago, this material was referred to as trash. We should be grateful to the few passionate and stubborn people, like Mrs. Webb and our own Stephen Clark, who knew better.

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