Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Albert Barnes, patrons of the arts, with writer/curator Avis Berman
THE MOVE OF THE WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART IN NEW YORK TO THE BASE OF THE HIGH LINE IN LOWER MANHATTAN HAS REESTABLISHED THE MUSEUM’S NATIVE DOWNTOWN ROOTS. ORIGINALLY HER STUDIO IN GREENWICH VILLAGE, SCULPTOR GERTRUDE VANDERBILT WHITNEY AVIDLY PURCHASED AND EXHIBITED NUMEROUS WORKS BY THE STRUGGLING LIVING ARTISTS OF HER TIME THAT ARE THE FOUNDATION OF THE WHITNEY MUSEUM’S COLLECTION TODAY.
ONE HUNDRED YEARS LATER IN 2014, THE ORIGINAL SITE OF THE MUSEUM, THE WHITNEY STUDIO, WAS ADDED AS A NATIONAL TREASURE TO THE NATIONAL TRUST FOR HISTORIC PRESERVATION’S LIST. LOCATED WITHIN THE LARGER COMPLEX OF THE NEW YORK STUDIO SCHOOL THE STUDIO OFFERS TOURS OF ITS REMARKABLE INTERIOR SPACE THAT HOUSES THE UNIQUE DECORATIVE INTERIORS BY ARTIST ROBERT WINTHROP CHANLER.
TODAY, WITH HISTORIAN AND CURATOR AVIS BERMAN, THE LRFA BLOG IS PLEASED TO EXPLORE NOT ONLY THE UNIQUE SPIRIT OF AMERICAN MODERNISM BUT ALSO THE HEROIC PATRONS WHO SUPPORTED IT.
AVIS, I HAD THE PLEASURE OF ATTENDING YOUR LECTURE AT THE AMERICAN ART FAIR LAST NOVEMBER. I WAS FASCINATED BY YOUR ILLUMINATING ACCOUNT OF THE LIFE OF JULIANA FORCE, A REMARKABLE WOMAN ABOUT WHOM I KNEW SO LITTLE, INSPIRED BY YOUR BOOK “THE REBELS ON EIGHTH STREET: JULIANA FORCE AND THE WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART”.
WHAT WAS AVAILABLE IN TERMS OF PRIMARY AND SECONDARY SOURCES FOR YOUR BOOK ?
There were papers in the Whitney Museum and the Archives of American Art, but the breakthrough came when the papers of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney became available to researchers through the generosity of her family, especially Flora Irving Biddle, one of Whitney’s granddaughters, who was always encouraging. Later on, the Whitney found a cache of papers that had been stored with the facilities manager; these boxes contained minutes of staff meetings that gave me much insight into the inner workings of the museum. I also traveled to archives all over the country. But the testimony of witnesses was invaluable and I couldn’t have done it without the extensive interviewing.
IN ADDITION TO YOUR EXTENSIVE CONTRIBUTIONS AS A WRITER AND CRITIC, YOU RECENTLY CURATED AN EXHIBITION ON WILLIAM GLACKENS, THE FIRST COMPREHENSIVE SURVEY OF THIS ARTIST’S WORK IN NEARLY FIFTY YEARS THAT OPENED AT THE MUSEUM OF ART IN FORT LAUDERDALE AND TRAVELED TO THE PARRISH ART MUSEUM IN WATER MILL, NEW YORK, AND THE BARNES FOUNDATION IN PHILADELPHIA.
WHAT IS THE CURATORIAL PROCESS?
The curatorial process for me began with two main aspects:
1) what would be the main stories I would like to tell about this artist? And
2) What works of art would I most like to have in the show and why? That is, the most ambitious, the most adventurous, and the most pivotal. I thought about these ideas simultaneously to develop a proposal and a checklist. Ideally, the combination should express the curatorial mission, which is to make the artist look as good as possible and show well-known touchstones of art along with rarely seen yet excellent works that will surprise viewers and make them see the artist in a new and expanded way.
Once the ideal checklist is made, I had to travel to various places to examine works I had not seen in person, and further refine my decisions. I also spoke to many curators informally about the possibility of lending works of art. Then the loan process begins, and you have to have substitutions for the inevitable rejections. Fortunately, in regard to Glackens, only one institution turned us down completely, but others could not lend for all three venues. Once we were pretty sure about the loans, my colleagues and I began writing our essays and talking about the exhibition design with the exhibition departments at each museum. I then edited the catalogue, working with the head of publications at the Barnes, which published the catalogue with Rizzoli. Then it was on to publicity and preparing for installations and opening and ongoing public events. And I found that even though I spent weeks essentially living in those galleries at each museum, I missed the paintings and drawings horribly after the show closed and everything went back to the owners.
WHAT WAS THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP THAT GLACKENS HAD WITH COLLECTOR AND MUSEUM FOUNDER, ALBERT BARNES?
William Glackens and Albert Barnes went to high school together in Philadelphia, and they were teammates on the school’s baseball team. But after school, Barnes studied medicine and chemistry and went into business, and Glackens studied art and worked as an artist-reporter and illustrator to support his painting. They didn’t see each other until late 1911, when Barnes, who lived in suburban Philadelphia, looked up Glackens, who had moved to New York in 1896. Barnes wanted to collect modern art, and Glackens was then a progressive modern artist who had become famous in art circles for participating in the historic show of “The Eight” in 1908, and had also been involved in the 1910 Independents show. When Barnes got in touch with him, he was on the cusp of joining the early group of artists who were plotting the future Armory Show. Barnes offered Glackens a trip to Paris to buy modern French art for him, and gave him $20,000 in cash to use for purchases. Glackens went to France in February 1912 and returned with 33 paintings and works on paper, including iconic paintings by Van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir, and Cézanne. Glackens’s buys formed the nucleus of Barnes’s collection, and from then on, except when travel took them across the Atlantic, Glackens and Barnes saw each other several times a month until Glackens’s death in 1938. Barnes was a legendarily combative and vituperative man who made many enemies, but Glackens remained a staunch friend. In turn, Barnes bought many paintings and drawings by Glackens, usually several pictures a year, and wrote and talked discerningly about the artist’s work.
ANOTHER OUTSTANDING WOMAN MEMORIALIZED BY AVIS IS KATHARINE KUH, FORMER CURATOR OF THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO, GRADUATE OF VASSAR COLLEGE IN 1925, AND A PIONEER OF MODERN ART, WHO INTRODUCED ARTISTS SUCH AS KLEE, MIRO AND PICASSO TO THE CHICAGO PUBLIC. AVIS BERMAN WILL TRACE KUH’S PATH FROM GALLERIST TO FIRST CURATOR OF MODERN PAINTING AND SCULPTURE AT THE CHICAGO ART INSTITUTE IN OUR NEXT LRFA BLOG.