Published: June 24, 2015
Miriam and Steve Miller
Anyone who has attended a Shaker sale has likely crossed paths with West Hartford, Conn., residents Miriam and Steve Miller. Passionate, knowledgeable and outgoing, these longtime collectors are frequently consulted authorities in the field. In the process of transferring their epherma collection, including thousands of product labels, to Hamilton College in upstate New York, they recently embarked on a similar partnership with Connecticut’s New Britain Museum of American Art, to whom they have promised their collection of Shaker objects. With Steve Miller as curator of Shaker art, the institution recently opened a 500-square-foot Shaker Gallery, one of only three such dedicated spaces in an American art museum. The debut exhibition, “Focus On: Enfield, Connecticut,” is up through November 20, 2016.
What prompted your collecting?
Our interest was piqued by a chance visit 40 years ago to Hancock Shaker Village. Everything about the place entranced us. We began collecting a year later after spotting a small ad in the Hartford Courant for a Shaker exhibit in a private gallery in upstate New York. We came away with a worktable and a paper label for a can of string beans. Over time our collections grew to include roughly 400 objects and more than 14,000 paper items. Ephemera was our primary focus early on. There was virtually no competition for it when we began.
What Shaker material do you love most?
In objects, we gravitate to pieces from the New Hampshire communities of Canterbury and Enfield. They seem to be more delicate, finely made and rarer than objects from communities such as New Lebanon, N.Y. In paper, we look for anything printed by or for the Shakers, but in the very best condition. Our goal was to form an archive of one of everything and we could afford to be very selective.
Has the market changed?
It has changed a number of times, both up and down. We made more discoveries in the beginning but, generally speaking, we have always paid market price. There weren’t too many bonanzas. We are still collecting. If something really special comes along, we purchase it.
What is your arrangement with Hamilton?
When I turned 70 nearly five years ago, I decided that I wanted to keep the ephemera intact and have it be in the best possible institutional setting. I knew Hamilton was the right place when the Shaker scholar Christian Goodwillie joined the college as director and curator of Special Collections & Archives. Hamilton has a strong interest in American communal societies. They had a wonderful collection of imprints but were weak in ephemera, which our collection, a partial gift, addressed. It’s fair to say that ours is the most comprehensive collection of Shaker ephemera ever assembled.
How did the New Britain partnership come about?
I was approached by the museum’s director, Douglas Hyland, after I organized a major show there in 2010. He asked me if I would consider doing a permanent exhibit of Shaker artifacts. I said yes immediately. I’ve been involved with the museum as a visitor, docent and trustee for 40 years. It’s a terrific institution. I retired nine years ago, spend up to 22 weeks a year traveling and roughly ten weeks a year hiking and paddling. Now I’m a part-time curator, as well.
Why an Enfield show?
No one had ever done an exhibit of any consequence on the one Shaker community in Connecticut, so I gathered up artifacts from our collection and others. The community was founded in 1792 and lasted until 1917. It covered about 4,000 acres, most of which is now the grounds of a state correctional facility. Only the site of the former South Family is still in private hands. The exhibit features furniture, small crafts, textiles and works on paper. Nine objects were associated with Eldress Caroline Tate, the last leader of the community.
Sewing desk, Enfield, Conn., circa 1870. Walnut with poplar drawers and porcelain knobs, height 41¼ by width 31 by depth 25½ inches. Miller Collection, New Britain Museum of American Art.
The centerpiece is a monumental built-in structure made by Shaker craftsman Grove Wright (1789–1861). It was removed from the 1858 South Family Wash House in 2014 because the building is falling apart. The piece, now owned by the museum, consists of 22 drawers and six cupboards. It is roughly 9 feet tall and 8 feet wide. It had never been touched. It took a full day to remove it and five months to have it professionally cleaned. Also of note, Clint and Pat Bigelow lent us an extraordinary figured maple rocking armchair of circa 1820 and there is a sewing desk that we gave to the museum. With it is a photograph showing the desk in use at Enfield around 1907. Four pieces, one a double trustee’s desk, are from Ed Clerk’s estate.
What’s up next?
Shows on Shaker textiles and woodenware.
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