Published: August 28, 2001
By Laura Beach
MILWAUKEE, WIS. – It is a curious fact that in Milwaukee one might dress differently for a visit to the art museum than for a trip to the concert hall, destinations that are a little more than ten blocks apart in this pleasant town of a million and a half people. This has to do with the tonic breezes that swirl up off of Lake Michigan and around Veterans Park, the waterside setting of the Milwaukee Museum of Art.
One way or another, climate has been a subject of much discussion in Milwaukee, where the museum recently erected a 90-foot tall pavilion with louvered sunscreens that rise and fall throughout the day in response to light and heat. Half bird, half ship and large part pretense, the theatrical structure by the trendy Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava upstages the city’s significant and highly varied collection. Still, the outsized conversation piece, which cost $100 million to build, has done exactly as city fathers had hoped, creating an instantly recognizable landmark for a metropolis that deserves to be better known.
The expansion has also made the city a hot destination for American decorative arts. In May, in a collaborative venture with the Layton Art Collection and Chipstone Foundation, the Milwaukee Art Museum opened a new 13,000-square foot exhibition devoted to American arts of three centuries.
Hitherto housed in a private home north of town, Chipstone’s formidable holdings are on public view for the first time. It is just the latest in a series of outstanding accomplishments by the decorative arts powerhouse whose resemblance to another powerhouse, Winterthur, is not accidental.
With investments of more than $70 million, Chipstone Foundation, according to the terms of its incorporation, is obligated to spend five percent of its portfolio assets annually, or at least $3.5 million. It has often spent more, according to foundation chairman Allen Taylor.
Much of the credit for the move goes to Chipstone’s 40-year-old executive director, Jonathan Prown, a furniture curator at Colonial Williamsburg before he assumed his post in May 1999. His disarming drawl is deceptive. He is not a Southerner, not even a naturalized one, according to his Virginia-born wife, literary scholar Katherine Hemple Prown. He grew up outside New Haven, the son of distinguished Yale professor Jules Prown. As a boy of 11 he toured the Yale Art Gallery’s new Garvan Installation, then cutting-edge, with Professor Charles Montgomery, an innovator whose influence on Chipstone has been profound.
At Colonial Williamsburg, Prown was seen as a champion of the odd object and the unorthodox view. “I was known for buying the ugly things, the whacked out pieces of Southern furniture,” he says with a grin. People still talk about the mildly scandalous talk he gave at the 1999 Antiques Forum in Williamsburg. He undressed the rococo, finding erotic abandon even in the relatively staid form of a Philadelphia high chest. Unlike many of his curatorial colleagues, Prown did not train at Winterthur and perhaps because of this he relishes his stance as an outsider, albeit a well-connected one.
Chipstone’s first director was Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque, who died in 1989. “A student of Montgomery’s at Yale and a close friend of the Stones, Oswaldo accomplished a great deal during his tenure,” notes Luke Beckerdite, who became Chipstone’s second director in 1990. “He added significant objects to the collection, began a dialogue with the University of Wisconsin that eventually led to the establishment of the Stone Professorship, and organized a meeting among decorative arts students to discuss the feasibility of establishing a furniture journal.”
Chipstone’s informal association with Yale dates to the 1970s, when Montgomery began advising Stanley and Polly Mariner Stone on their small but choice collection of early American furniture and prints and English ceramics, particularly pottery. “I think Montgomery was struck by the parallels between the DuPonts and the Stones, between Winterthur and Chipstone,” says Edward S. Cooke, Jr., today the Charles F. Montgomery Professor of American Decorative Arts at Yale.
“He was instrumental in convincing the Stones that their collection didn’t have to be passive, that Chipstone could become a center for the decorative arts. He saw a real need for that in the upper Midwest.”
At Montgomery’s encouragement, graduate art history students at Yale began cataloging the Stones’ collection during the summer of 1976. Roque, and later Deborah Dependahl Waters, now a curator at the Museum of the City of New York, worked on the volume between 1977 and 1981. American Furniture at Chipstone was published by University of Wisconsin Press in 1984.
In his introduction to the book, the department-store magnate writes that his first antique was a Salem, Mass., desk-and-bookcase that he purchased from Israel Sack in 1946, on his initial visit to New York after World War II.
By the 1960s, Stone was buying heavily, often from John S. Walton, at the time a dealer in New York. Chipstone Foundation was founded in 1965 and endowed after Mr Stone’s death in 1987. Mrs Stone died in 1995.
During Beckerdite’s nine-year tenure as director, Chipstone Foundation rose to national prominence as an aggressive buyer of American antiques and a supporter of worthy scholarly projects at other institutions. “When I arrived, the foundation’s board of directors had developed a mission statement that included several objectives: maintaining and preserving the Stones’ furniture, ceramics, and print collection; expanding and enhancing the collection in each area; using the collection for teaching purposes; promoting research in the decorative arts field; and establishing and supervising the publication of a furniture journal,” notes Beckerdite, who systematically achieved each objective.
During the 1990s, Chipstone spent more than $25 million acquiring approximately 160 major artifacts for its collection. Not long after Beckerdite arrived, he completed the private treaty purchase of ten Pilgrim Century and William and Mary pieces from Eddy Nicholson, the bulk of whose collection was auctioned by Christie’s in 1995. Among the most important was a unique armchair attributed to joiner John Elderkin.
Chipstone has worked with London dealer Garry Atkins since 1990 in its acquisition of ceramics, catalogued by Leslie Grigsby. Rudy Wunderlich has handled most of the Foundation’s historical prints. Alan Miller, a Pennsylvania furniture conservator who has advised Chipstone since 1989, represented the foundation in its bid for a Philadelphia mahogany piecrust tilt-top tea table, purchased at Christie’s in 1999 for $1.5 million.
Miller also brokered the sale of a Philadelphia chest-on-chest with carving attributed to London émigré John Pollard. After Prown come on board, Chipstone, again represented by Miller, bought a Philadelphia hairy paw-foot side chair from the famous Cadwalader set for $1.4 million, and a Boston japanned high chest of drawers for $1.6 million.
From Massachusetts dealer Sam Herrup, Chipstone acquired a Seventeenth Century Boston folding table; Joe and Jenifer Kindig of Pennsylvania retailed a New York desk-and-bookcase with carving attributed to Henry Hardcastle, and a Boston desk-and-bookcase with a classical architectural facade and carving attributed to John Welch. A mid-Eighteenth Century armchair from Edenton, N.C. was purchased Sotheby’s in October 1997 for $233,500.
Chipstone has funded most of its purchases through its operating budget. However, in January 1998, the foundation put three important works – the Hollingsworth Philadelphia high chest, dressing table and chair – up at Christie’s. The group sold over the phone to Atlanta dealer Deanne Levison for $2.97 million, more than four times what the Stones purchased the group for in the 1980s, setting a record at auction for a suite of Philadelphia furniture.
Chipstone’s ambitious buying followed a thorough review of its collection, initiated by Beckerdite soon after his arrival. “It quickly became apparent that there were several problem pieces. After I carefully examined these pieces and catalogued the evidence proving them to be fakes, I enlisted the assistance of Alan Miller to provide a second opinion. When I presented the results of our ‘double-blind’ examination to Mrs Stone, she insisted that the problem pieces be used for a study collection and that objects of comparable historic and artistic importance be acquired to rebuild the collection,” says the former director.
Today, the foundation’s collection is versatile from a teaching standpoint but far from encyclopedic. Strong in Colonial furniture from Philadelphia, Newport and Boston and other East Coast style centers, it is still thin in other regions and eras, deficiencies that are offset by the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Nineteenth and Twentieth Century holdings.
Chipstone’s cache of English pottery, already excellent, has recently been enhanced through the acquisition, through planned bequest, of Ivor Noel Hume’s collection, assembled over the past half century by one of this country’s premier historical archaeologists. The trove will be on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum from October 5, coinciding with Chipstone’s publication of his memoirs, If These Pots Could Talk, a 472-page volume to be distributed by University of New England Press.
Chipstone plans to continue buying but, with limitations on both storage and display, does not foresee further dramatic expansion of its holdings. “For Chipstone, it’s a question of doing everything relatively poorly or a few things really well. So far, we’ve done the latter,” says Glenn Adamson, a Yale-trained art historian hired as Chipstone’s collections curator.
“Chipstone is known as a masterpieces collection, and it’s likely to stay that way, though I’d like to see more Southern and rural material,” Prown confesses.
About the time that it became a major player in the marketplace, Chipstone earned the respect of its colleagues with American Furniture, an annual journal begun by Beckerdite in 1993 and still edited by him from his home in Williamsburg. The volume created a much-needed forum for debate and put the institution prominently at its center.
“Establishing American Furniture was another objective that absorbed a great deal of my time,” Beckerdite concedes. “Although it was envisioned as a small publication with three or four articles and black-and-white photography, I proposed that we make the journal more like an art book, with beautiful color photography and scholarly articles that offered ‘cutting-edge’ research.” Chipstone’s board agreed to subsidize the volume, which it markets for $50. The real cost of producing the American Furniture is closer to $150 a copy, Beckerdite says.
Ceramics In America, edited by Robert Hunter, will be introduced this fall and is expected to have an even wider audience. “I am trying to make the journal accessible to a range of people,” says Hunter, an archaeologist who also envisions artists, art historians and collectors among his readers. In addition to scholarly essays, book reviews and a bibliography, Ceramics In America will feature first-person accounts by collectors and short rdf_Descriptions on new discoveries in the field.
“When I came on board two years ago, the main goal was to get Chipstone’s collection on display by loaning it to exhibitions all over America,” Prown recalls. The foundation’s biggest challenge remained the zoning restrictions that all but prevented the public from touring the Stones’ Fox Point home, a redbrick Georgian mansion designed by Colonial Williamsburg architect William Perry.
Prown soon realized that the Milwaukee Art Museum’s dramatic expansion might present the perfect opportunity for collaboration between the two institutions. Former Milwaukee Art Museum curator Jody Clowes says of their venture, “There were powerful connections that we could make across our two collections, so it was a good mix.” Milwaukee’s eclectic holdings range from Prairie School artifacts to early American and English decorative arts from the Layton Art Collection, long housed at the museum. The caliber of these holdings owes much to the initiative of Dudley J. Godrey, Jr., Frederick Vogel III, and the late Robert V. Krikorian, among other prominent local collectors.
From the beginning, Chipstone has been at its most imaginative when confronted by its limitations. Having overcome its lack of exhibition space, it still needed to define its audience. Through its publications it reached curators and collectors steeped in the field’s more arcane developments, but what about exhibitions, and what about the general public?
“The idea of putting together a show here that would appeal only to collectors would just be….insane,” says Adamson, who, like Prown, sees an urgent need to bring museums up to date. “When you start reading much more broadly in other disciplines – in literature, history, and anthropology, for instance – fresh ideas emerge that we can use to understand objects. A lot of decorative arts exhibits look the same, feel the same, sound the same. We wanted to say something new and different and, if needed, something provocative,” says Prown.
Instead of rigidly ordering objects according to style and date, the curators explored significant cultural connections. A thematic approach suited their philosophical allegiance to material culture studies, which set aside the norms of traditional connoisseurship in favor of a wider interpretation of objects as expressions of the societies that made them.
A thematic approach was also consistent with exhibition strategies at leading art institutions such as the Tate Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where curators are sometimes abandoning standard classifications, such as chronology and geography, in their displays. “You might think of the thematic installation as a kind of Post-Modernist idea,” Adamson explains. “If the meaning of an object is contingent on its circumstance, its meaning changes depending on what is near it.”
The exhibition team of Prown, Adamson and Clowes had grown to include Nonie Gadsden, who came to Chipstone as the foundation’s first Charles Hummel Intern, an honor that will be bestowed annually on an outstanding Winterthur graduate. (On the recent completion of her internship, Gasdsen was named assistant curator of decorative arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum.)
Two independent scholars, Robert Trent and Ellen Denker, were selected not only for their expertise in furniture and ceramics – Trent has published widely on the first, Denker on the second – but for their well-deserved reputations as iconoclastic thinkers.
“The topics quickly emerged as we started to delve,” recalls Trent, who urged the group towards a study of two major themes in Western art, Classicism and Orientalism. “Through the unconventional juxtaposition of objects we explored issues of history as well as of taste, something that is often lacking in art museums,” Denker adds.
Installed in the windowless ground floor of the museum’s 1970s-era wing, the American Collection is reached via a short staircase. Visitors quickly proceed to an introductory theater, where a handful of handcrafted and machine-made objects suggest the scope of what will follow. “We could tell you a lot of facts, but we could also tell you how these objects were used. This is not a story about facts but a story about people,” the taped narration begins, signaling the unconventional approach.
The first suite of rooms is the most ambitious. Grouped under the heading “Origins and Ornament,” they cleave between two ornamental traditions – dominant, muddled and polar – that have evolved over the millennia. While designed to be enticing to novices, the installations have much to offer sophisticates, as well, as the compilation of cultural references is erudite and complex.
The organizers were considerably assisted by Lou Storey, a talented, freelance exhibition designer from New Jersey who delivered their clever script with vivid color, striking tableaux, and a practiced eye for sculptural form.
Classicism, the artistic legacy of Greece and Rome, was familiar to American makers and patrons. As the curators see it, the tradition is sustained by the tension of two opposites, order and disorder. In “Architecture and Proportion,” the curators look at the time-honored ideals of symmetry and geometry and consider the grammar of ornament, from urns and balusters to columns, arches, moldings, and coffering.
A Federal sidechair from Portsmouth is shown with a Queen Anne chair from Philadelphia, demonstrating that their shaped splats derive from a single source. In a more dramatic contrast, a pair of New York Chippendale andirons is pitted against an Ettore Sottsass compote of 1982.
“Artists have long been inspired by the aesthetic clarity and symmetry found in nature,” the curators write, choosing a battery of objects decorated with acanthus leaves and shells as proof. No task was more worthy, or challenging, than the depiction of the human body as temple – serene, blemish free, and perfectly proportioned, a la Hiram Power’s 1844 bust of Persephone.
But the mysterious, unruly side of nature is an equal part of the Classical tradition. Drawing on “The Rococo, the Grotto, and the Philadelphia High Chest,” an essay published by Prown and Richard Miller in the 1996 volume of American Furniture, the curators have composed their most dramatic display, a grotto whose entrance is the gaping mouth of a monster. Inside this stylized representation of womb and tomb they have placed a Bernard and Jugiez Philadelphia side chair, circa 1765, and an Eero Saarinen Womb chair, circa 1946.
Nearby, the iconic Cadwalader side chair, now startlingly dressed in its blue-checked slip cover, as research shows it should be, and a Belter sofa of a century later are juxtaposed, striking a parallel between the superabundant naturalism of both pieces while challenging a conventional bias toward highstyle, Eighteenth Century furniture.
The curators bring order and chaos together in a display featuring American Rococo design. “People aren’t used to thinking about it that way, but there it is – the use of wild, asymmetrical carving; the ivy vine in combination with classical urns, columns or motifs. All we’re saying is that American Rococo is its own category, but it’s also connected. We are trying to get people to think about how ideas move across time and place,” says Prown.
From a louche lavender gallery of overripe Classicism through a bold presentation of American Rococo, visitors enter a room painted a brilliant Chinese red. “Orientalism is the way the West envisions the East. It is an attitude more than a style, a reaction more rooted in fantasy than reality,” reads an opening panel, adopting the view popularized by scholar Edward Said in the late 1970s.
Two superb paintings illustrate the point. Cloaked in silken splendor, his head wrapped in a morning cap that looks more like a turban, Boston merchant Thomas Boylston, as painted by J.S. Copley, represents profit and empire in the rational west. Robert Henri’s black garbed “Chinese Lady” sits ancient, massive and immobile against an exotic chartreuse ground, echoing Western views of the country itself.
Recognizing the complexity of the subject, the curators have divided the room into smaller displays devoted to the influence of the Near East, China, and Japan. It is an opportunity to show off the strength of the joined collections: memorabilia and a chair from Milwaukee’s Oriental Theater, which opened in 1927; Chipstone’s varied ceramics collection, which is itself an essay on cultural diffusion through trade; and such prizes as the spectacular japanned Boston high chest, already mentioned, that Chipstone had meticulously cleaned so that its lustrous surface gleams again.
Next comes “Of The Maker, By The Maker, For The Maker,” a straightforward presentation of the quiet revolution that, between the late Seventeenth and early Nineteenth Centuries, liberated American furniture makers from strict adherence to European precedent. It is a chance to admire Chipstone’s furniture collection, particularly strong in Newport Goddard-Townsend examples, and to study the documented work of specific craftsmen, from John and Samuel Dunlap to Samuel Loomis. Two final rooms look at manufacture and distribution in the Nineteenth Century, an area in which Chipstone is just beginning to collect.
Grouped as “Icons of Identity” and installed in the Virginia and Robert Krikorian Gallery, the final themed galleries are in many ways the most successful. Narrow in subject but highly nuanced, they mingle an impressive range of objects that have been interpreted and installed with imaginative flair. Toby jugs and tea tables combine in “Drinking Games,” an exploration of social rituals.
Other pastimes, from needlework to backgammon to china painting, are presented in “Parlor Games,” a vignette that takes visitors into the Twentieth Century with art furniture from Byrdcliffe and the Mathews studio in San Francisco. “Tulipmania” considers the flower as decorative motif and historical phenomenon.
Particularly thoughtful is “Sign Language,” a medley of furniture, portraiture, silver, and ceramics illustrating how artifacts immortalize and identify people, often revealing their allegiances and intentions along the way. “Reinventing The Past” looks at why and how styles and motifs are recycled from one century to the next.
“Puritan Classicism: Seventeenth Century Cupboards of Massachusetts” (through September 2) is the first show in a new gallery for changing exhibits. Organized by Robert Trent and Peter Follansbee, this unprecedented survey represents nearly three decades of research by Trent, who assembled most of the known work of an Essex County shop and its nearby competitors.
The gallery will close out the year with “If These Pots Could Talk,” followed, next year, by a show on Chipstone furniture fakes and restorations assembled by Beckerdite.
In 2003, the Milwaukee Art Museum will mount “American Fancy,” organized by Virginia dealer Sumpter Priddy, in its main galleries upstairs. Chipstone is publishing Priddy’s book on the same subject.
“American Fancy” is just the latest in a series of critical surveys for which Chipstone can take at least partial credit. “We supported several symposia, conferences and publications,” says Beckerdite, citing the catalogues and books American Kasten (1991), American Rococo, 1750-1775 (1992), Portsmouth Furniture: Masterworks of the New Hampshire Seacoast (1993); Painted Wood (1994); Southern Furniture, 1680-1730 (1997); New England Furniture at Winterthur (1997); Worldly Goods (1999) and the forthcoming Charleston Furniture.
In the future, more of Chipstone’s publishing ventures may be online. Its Web site (www.chipstone.org) is currently under construction by Wynne Patterson, the designer of American Furniture and Ceramics in America. Prown not only anticipates a day when Chipstone’s exhibitions will be virtual and its collections electronically accessible to all, but envisions the Web site as an intellectual gathering spot, open to other contributors. The plan dovetails with his ambition to one day open the Stones’ Fox Point home as a scholars’ center.
The foundation’s widening circle of influence extends to the University of Wisconsin, where its most crucial experiment – the training of new scholars in American decorative arts – is underway. In 1998, Ann Smart Martin, a colleague of Prown’s from Colonial Williamsburg, became the first Stanley and Polly Stone Professor of American Decorative Arts on the Madison campus.
A spot has also been created for a visiting professor, a two-year appointment. Adamson, an instructor in the program, teaches on subjects as diverse as post-1945 objects, a major component of his dissertation topic, and pastoralism as a theme in American decorative arts. Prown guest lectures and co-teaches.
“We are working with people from all disciplines to create a program that is broad in its scope. Our intent is to ask hard questions. There is tremendous room for wider interpretation of this material,” notes Prown. “Chipstone hasn’t eliminated old perspectives on the decorative arts, it has just added new ones,” says Edward Cooke, who heartily endorses the evolving program.
Through the shrewd manipulation of its resources, Chipstone Foundation has found a way to make a compelling statement without a large collection or even its own galleries. Through its publications and educational programs, it has embraced a spectrum of topics, views, and methodologies, and has reached an audience far beyond Milwaukee.
“I think that you can be interested in something without having to own it,” says Adamson, hinting at the burdens that large collections can impose and the freedom inherent in Chipstone’s multi-pronged less approach.
From the air, Milwaukee this time of year is an East Coast visitor’s vision of the new world – a relaxed but orderly grid of tidy brick buildings and tin-roofed barns, enfolded in the lush green of the surrounding countryside. Calatrava’s pavilion shines on the horizon. Suddenly, Chipstone’s greatest liability – its lack of exhibition space and an audience to go with it – seems an enormous advantage, a chance to start fresh and build new what hadn’t been built since Winterthur opened exactly a half century ago. The climate was right for another look at American decorative arts.
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