Published: April 3, 2001
: A Fresh Look At Its Holdings
NEW HAVEN, CONN. – Yale University Art Gallery prides itself on being the best teaching museum for American art in the country. But while its collections of American paintings, furniture, and silver are well known, the origins of its contents and the equally interesting history of their display are less familiar.
The core of the American collection came to Yale in 1930, when the noted collector Francis P. Garvan wrote, on the occasion of his 20th wedding anniversary, to Yale’s treasurer, George Parmly Day, offering the university his 5,000-piece collection of “silver, prints, furniture, pewter, china, crockery, glass, coins, iron and other metal work, and so forth…” The works were to be installed in Yale’s new Gallery of Fine Arts, an Italian Gothic hall designed by Egerton Swartwout and completed in 1928. Garvan made the gift in honor of his wife, Mabel Brady Garvan, and it is for her that the collection has since been known.
Garvan had been bitten by the antiques bug shortly after his marriage in 1910. Over the next decade, he was guided in his collecting by Luke Vincent Lockwood (1872-1951) of the Brooklyn Museum and R.T. Haines Halsey (1865-1942) of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, along with other leading scholars and dealers of the day.
“…It is clear that [Garvan] soon developed a philosophy which emphasized quality and comprehensiveness… he felt that for his purposes both masterpieces of the highest quality and a representative collection of makers, forms, and materials were needed,” Gerald W.R. Ward wrote in 1980 in Francis P. Garvan, Collector. The slim volume, which includes essays by Patricia E. Kane and Helen Cooper, was published as a memorial to Mabel Brady Garvan, who died in 1979, more than four decades after her husband and after years of supporting the American arts program at Yale.
Garvan’s collection grew quickly. By 1924, its strength was such that Halsey saw fit to borrow from it for the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing. Included in the wing’s initial display were two early and still well-known Garvan acquisitions, a Peter Van Dyck tankard and a chest-on-chest made for Elias Hasket Derby by Stephen Badlam, with carved allegorical figures by John and Simeon Skillin.
Once he decided to make his collection public, Garvan stepped up the pace of his collecting with an eye toward completing what he idealistically viewed as important teaching tools. He bought at the Reifsnyder, Ayer, and Flayderman auctions, and, in 1929 and 1930, acquired portions of collections formed by Halsey and Lockwood, as well as by such renowned antiquarians as Dr Irving W. Lyon, Louis Guerineau Myers, and George S. McKearin. In 1930, he wrote to Dwight Blaney, expressing an interest in adding the Boston collector’s treasures to the many already on their way to Yale.
Garvan “applied as much energy to refining as he did acquiring,” wrote Ward. Wanting Yale to have only the very best, he hired experts to vet his collection before making his gift. American Art Association – Anderson Galleries conducted the subsequent auction of duplicate and superfluous material from the Garvan collection in 1931.
Photographs dating from circa 1930 show the Garvan collection as it appeared when first installed in Yale’s Gallery of Fine Arts. Flooded by natural light from the skylights above, the large, open room is ringed with portraits. Casepiece furniture, tables and chairs are pushed against the walls. Silver and other objects are arranged in pyramids in several glass cases scattered around the chamber. The photographs suggest no attempt to group the pieces either chronologically or stylistically.
In a dramatic sign that times had changed, Yale University Art Gallery was redesigned in 1953 by Louis Kahn, who moved the museum’s front door and redirected visitors through understated Modernist galleries that were more noted for such innovative features as tetrahedron concrete ceilings than inspired classical detail. The old Swartwout wing became an attractive curiosity, an antediluvian appendage to the austerely simple Kahn building.
As campus unrest grew during the Vietnam War years, Yale University Art Gallery found itself arguing its raison d’etre to a student body that skeptically viewed museums as “snob palaces,” says Patricia E. Kane, Yale’s curator of American decorative arts. “When the Garvan collection was reinstalled in 1973, the kids were rioting in the streets out here. The museum as palace was not cool. Even prior to that, as early as the 1940s, the museum had begun to deny the palatial aspect of the building and disguise it. They stopped using the grand staircase.”
Charles Montgomery arrived on the scene in 1970, at the start of a decade conflicted by anti-establishment doubt and a resurgent interest in American art. With funds provided by Mabel Brady Garvan, Yale’s new curator of American decorative arts initiated the dramatic modernization of the museum’s American galleries.
“A chair is more than something to sit on,” wrote Montgomery, who recruited the design firm Chermayeff and Geismar, itself a Pop Art-era phenomenon best known for transforming the images of corporate clients such as the Chase Manhattan Bank, Xerox, and Mobil Oil through strong, abstract graphics.
“The Chermayeff installation of the Garvan collection was almost radical at the time – the bold use of angles and supergraphics, the way the chairs were mounted on the walls. It was also very progressive in mixing decorative arts, paintings and sculpture,” notes Stephen Saitas, the prominent New York designer whom Pat Kane approached several years ago about updating the display.
In the 1973 project, Montgomery, whose enthusiasm for the humblest pewter vessel vitalized the study of antiques, led a team that included Kane, who assumed Montgomery’s post as curator of American decorative arts after his death in 1978. Helen Cooper, now Yale’s curator of American paintings and sculpture, was at the time a graduate student.
“Montgomery’s goal was to get twice as much material on view and present it in a chronological fashion, which it really hadn’t been prior to that. He also wanted the collections to function as teaching tools,” Kane recalled. “The space had been very inappropriate for furniture made for domestic-scale living, so the concept was to block out the skylights, darken the ceilings, and bring down their height. The Chermayeff installation was certainly successful in reaching those goals.”
“Montgomery wanted to liberate the decorative arts from the period-room mentality,” added Cooper, remembering the snaking floor plan that led viewers through the tightly constructed Chermayeff display, with few perambulatory options and little room for questions.
The strength of the Chermayeff installation, a clear and forceful point of view, was also its limitation. After three decades, Yale’s curators were ready for a change. “Pat and I had been talking about revising it for years,” Cooper acknowledged on a recent walk through of the interiors, whose architecture has been restored to its grand 1928 appearance, complete with vaulted ceilings, segmented skylights, sandstone columns, and other handsome details. “We tried, every now and then, to break out of part of it and see if something else could be shoehorned in. It didn’t work. But dismantling the whole thing was a huge project, and tremendously expensive. It meant shutting down the wing for Yale courses.”
Enter Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz, II, Director of the Yale University Art Gallery. “When he arrived at the museum two and a half years ago he agreed that this was a good moment to think about a new installation with an eye toward greater flexibility and the use of the whole collection,” Cooper explained.
Learned heads came together. “We consulted the relevant professors, including Jules Prown, Edward Cooke, Jonathan Weinberg, and Bryan Wolf,” said Cooper. “It was clear from the outset that they wanted a chronological installation that was stylistic, without a lot of interpretative overlay,” noted Kane. The team settled on a presentation that is chronological, but not hierarchical. Style periods are given roughly equal weight.
Not a single inch has been added to the 10,000-square foot space, yet the curators have succeeded in updating the display. “When Montgomery envisioned the 1973 installation we didn’t have Twentieth Century decorative arts and we had very little Nineteenth Century material,” admitted Kane. Those collections have since grown, and the current decorative arts professor, Ned Cooke, now teaches courses on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century design. The collection has also been broadened geographically to represent the Spanish and French, as well as English and Dutch influences on American decorative arts.
Because visitors enter Yale’s American wing through the contemporary art galleries, the decision was made to start at the present and take visitors backward in time. The most dramatic changes involved paintings, about 125 in all. “They had been given a secondary place in the Garvan installation. They were often hung over furniture,” said Cooper, who now has the soaring center court at her disposal. Loosely divided into thirds, the center gallery works back from Modernist painters such as Hopper, Sheeler, and O’Keeffe to Eakins and Homer, concluding with mid-Nineteenth Century landscapes.
Earlier works are shown beyond the gallery’s original sandstone pillars, in Gallery 306 and Gallery 300. Past that is the Trumbull Gallery, which houses John Trumbull’s famous cycle of history paintings, portraits by John Singleton Copley, and other works from Colonial and Federal periods. Sculpture is liberally scattered from one end of the three paintings[LB1] galleries to the other.
Smaller rooms flanking the main gallery showcase decorative arts of the same period as the fine arts. “In the decorative arts, we are attempting to integrate the media,” noted Kane. “These cases contain everything from silver and base metal to ceramics and glass. Unlike in the Chermayeff installation, our furniture and case objects are shown within contiguous spaces.” Contemporary seating by designers such as Judy McKie and Silas Kopf has been placed invitingly around the galleries. The furniture, part of Yale’s Please Be Seated collection, was acquired with the hope that guests do just that.
In Gallery 300, the decorative arts curator is displaying Yale’s magnificent collection of Colonial furniture and accessories. Adjacent to the large, rectangular space are [LB2]the Branford Rooms, featuring architectural components salvaged from an Eighteenth Century home. Their interiors were installed in 1928 by the noted New Haven architect J. Frederick Kelly, who had acquired them with the help of the antiquarian George Dudley Seymour.
One room will periodically be empty. Matrix Gallery, as the windowless interior is called, has been dedicated to temporary exhibits. Reinstalled every six months, it allows curators to show photographs and other light-sensitive works on paper, or simply to expand upon themes developed in the adjacent galleries. “Rotate is the mantra of the moment,” Cooper said cheerfully of Yale’s newfound flexibility.
As it did nearly 30 years ago, Yale turned to top designers for advice on implementing its ideas. Stephen Saitas was consulted because of his extensive experience working with decorative arts. The New York designer has created galleries for Historic Deerfield and the New York Historical Association, and loan shows for New York’s Winter Antiques Show. Most recently, he has revamped the galleries of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.
“Flexibility was a big word,” said Saitas. “We had a lot of discussions about it. Pat and Helen wanted to use this new installation as a laboratory for trying different ways of displaying objects. Pat wanted to be able to change the cases. She was clear about that from day one.”
“I felt it was important to incorporate elements from the older installations,” said the designer, who has not turned a blind eye to the Garvan collection’s legendary past. “I’ve put chairs on the walls in a couple of instances. We’ve also used a case from the 1950s installation and we opened up the 1920s skylights.”
Modifications to the existing building were made by James Stewart Polshek, a New York architect whose talents have been tapped by the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum, Scandinavia House, and the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center, among others. Steven Heffernan of Boulder, Colo., was consulted on the lighting. With exhibit space limited, Yale is digitizing its entire American arts collection, which will be linked to the art gallery’s new database, The Museum System, and the Yale Libraries’ Imaging America project.
Yale’s new galleries for American art were unveiled on March 24, when the museum hosted its annual Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque Memorial Lecture. In a talk entitled “Art in America: Reflections on Context, Connoisseurship and Patriotism in the American Museum,” William Hosley, executive director of the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society in Hartford, addressed the very issues that confronted Yale’s curators as they considered replacing a landmark display.
“Exhibits are cultural statements,” noted Pat Kane, reflecting on Yale’s changing rapport with its own collections. “When the art gallery opened in 1928 people marveled at the grandeur of the building, but that grandeur had been absolutely denied over the years. We no longer wanted to deny this space its beauty.”
Yale University Art Gallery is at Chapel and York Streets. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm, and Sunday, 1 to 6 pm. The museum is closed Monday. Telephone, 203-432-0606.
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