Published: February 7, 2017
When Matthew A. Thurlow assumed the post of executive director of the Decorative Arts Trust in 2014, he brought with him extensive experience, impressive personal connections and a deep appreciation for art, architecture and design. Three years later, Thurlow – who spent five years at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art before joining the development office at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library – is transforming the Pennsylvania-based organization with a variety of educational, research and communications initiatives. Antiques and The Arts Weekly recently caught up with Thurlow in New York, where members of this vital organization gathered for the Americana Week shows and sales.
What were your goals when you joined the Trust?
I was truly fortunate to inherit a healthy organization with an enthusiastic membership base. My primary maxim at the outset was quite simple: strategic and sustainable growth. With the board’s endorsement, we set out to offer a broader variety of programs for the benefit of our members while also expanding the amount of support we offer to graduate students and young professionals through our Emerging Scholars Program. Both initiatives have been very successful, thanks to the continued support of our members and a growing group of private foundations. We accomplish a full slate with only two full-time employees and an active board.
Why did the Trust choose Savannah for its April 20-23 Spring Symposium?
Savannah offers an alluring range of historic sites and material culture with ample Low County charm. We were truly fortunate to have the dedicated assistance of Trust members who live in town or have connections there. Our participants will experience a comprehensive exploration of Savannah. Testifying to the interest in this fabulous city, our program sold out in three days.
Can you tell us more about the Dean F. Failey Fund? The Emerging Scholars Program?
Following the death of our board member Dean Failey in 2015, our community rallied to honor his contributions to the field. The Failey Fund allows us to offer an annual grant in support of a notable exhibition, publication or research project. Fittingly, the first two were awarded to a show and book on the New York silversmith Elias Pelletreau that are based heavily on Dean’s lifetime of research on that notable craftsman. The Trust’s Emerging Scholars Program is our pride and joy. I am a past beneficiary of a Trust grant, as are many leading practitioners in our field. In 2016, we sponsored 40 scholarships, grants, internships and lectures. Our primary goal is to underwrite opportunities for young scholars seeking careers in the art or preservation fields.
What are some of the most exciting developments in the decorative arts field today?
I am eager to see how the Americana community responds to our country’s upcoming bicenquinquagenary. When we look back at the series of exhibitions and books timed with the bicentennial, not to mention the talented scholars who came of age in the years leading up to 1976, 2026 should be a watershed moment for our field. In the near term, I am anxiously awaiting the impact of the new administration on the decorative arts community and wider museum field. Whether you are a curator of the White House collection or an institution applying for NEA and NEH funding, these next four years may bear witness to a sea change in public support for the arts. Against the current backdrop, however, we celebrate new institutions such as the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and the Museum of the American Revolution.
You have a 5-year-old. Are museums an interest of his yet?
Only if they feature dinosaurs! I look forward to bringing him to Colonial Williamsburg in due course. As with many colleagues aligned with the American decorative arts field, my first visit to Virginia’s colonial capital at the age of 8 was a pivotal moment in the development of a passion for American history.
Do you and your wife, Jen, collect?
Our collecting primarily focuses on puzzles, action figures and art supplies, but we do have some antiques and prints on display. As a wedding present, she gave me a New York chair labeled by Ernest Hagen, whose shop reupholstered it in 1908. Hagen was also Duncan Phyfe’s first biographer and repaired and reproduced antiques for an impressive clientele. This chair encapsulates my early career working for Peter Kenny when he was at the Met and my continuing interest in the New York furniture trade.
Which New York cabinetmaker most fascinates you?
While a graduate student at Winterthur, then-curator of furniture Wendy Cooper introduced me to Thomas Constantine, a lesser-known cabinetmaker who was a neighbor of Duncan Phyfe. Constantine was one of hundreds of lower-level makers working in the city at that time and lasted only ten years in the trade, yet furnished both houses of Congress in Washington following the War of 1812. The notion of Congress allocating these momentous and sizable commissions to a relatively anonymous New Yorker never ceases to amaze me. Remarkably, all 48 desks he made for the Senate are still in use today.
For more on the Decorative Arts Trust’s program of symposia, study trips abroad, research, scholarships and grants, or for membership and subscription information, go to www.decorativeartstrust.org.
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