A haven for wit and whimsy dusts off its welcome mat
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
THE NEW YORK TIMES | August 19,2013
Photo by Peter Vanderwarker
The new Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education includes two exhibition galleries, an auditorium and classroom space. Pictured is the west (museum) side.
Don’t get the wrong idea when you encounter Manet’s “Grand Canal, Venice” (1875) at the inaugural exhibition of the new visitors’ center at the Shelburne Museum. Don’t get the wrong idea, either, from the solemn name of the 18,000-square-foot building: the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education. Despite signs of aesthetic ambition, increased professionalization and expanded educational goals, this quirky, astonishing institution is not jettisoning its distinctive oddities.
The museum’s director, Thomas Denenberg, who arrived here two years ago after serving as deputy director and chief curator at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, may be flexing his muscles, but he will not be turning this 45-acre enterprise with 38 buildings (including a lighthouse, a covered bridge and a hunting lodge) and 150,000 objects (including hat boxes, horse-drawn carriages and marzipan molds) into just another museum.
Which is a great relief. For while beauty and high concept have their place (and often find one here), the genius of the Shelburne is something just as profound: a spirit of play. And by play I mean something serious, something that this new center, which opened Sunday, may help visitors explore.
The center may also help boost the number of people prepared to explore. The museum, with a $30 million endowment and a $6 million budget, has been closed for the winter, and in recent years has had only about 100,000 visitors a year. But the $7 million center, designed by Ann Beha Architects of Boston in a style that might be called modernist pastoral, will be open year-round and includes two exhibition galleries. Its state-of-the-art classroom will allow the museum to expand its educational offerings, and a handsome 135-seat lecture hall is scheduled to present concerts, poetry readings and lectures, making the museum a center of community life.
I hope those exhibition galleries will also amplify the museum’s reputation, because the Shelburne should be visited not only by lovers of its collections, but also by lovers of even the idea of collections. When I wrote about the Shelburne two years ago, it was in response to a puzzle it presents. How does a museum shape such eccentric holdings into something so thoroughly exhilarating? What kind of museum reconfigures the Vermont landscape with transplanted historical buildings gathered around what seems to be a Greek Revival temple? Or incorporates into that temple a reproduction of a 1930s wood-paneled Park Avenue apartment decorated with 18th-century English furniture and 19th-century impressionist masterpieces?
That last building, in fact, is a family memorial for Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960), the sugar and railroad heiress whose passionate and prescient collecting of everything from buildings to folk art gave birth to this museum in 1947 and defined its idiosyncratic vision. The anomalous apartment is also an eerie re-creation of her 1930s New York residence (although the artworks within are thoroughly authentic).
But is there a coherent taste behind all of this? That is a less polemical version of the question asked by Webb’s mother, Louisine Elder, who was a friend of Mary Cassatt’s and, who, with her husband, Henry O. Havemeyer, was among the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s important patrons: “How can you, Electra, you who have been brought up with Rembrandts and Manets, live with such American trash?”
The inaugural exhibition here presents an implicit defense of that trash by focusing on Webb’s taste even in its title: “Color, Pattern, Whimsy, Scale: The Best of Shelburne Museum.” By selecting themes related to size, surface and manners and by grouping diverse objects within each category, the show’s four curators — Jean Burks (color), Kory Rogers (pattern), Sarah Woodbury (whimsy) and Denenberg (scale) — ask us to think about the defining characteristics of Webb’s vision (and thus the museum’s).
So under the color category, there is Manet’s “Blue Venice” (as Webb’s mother, who purchased the painting, called it). That city’s “play of light,” we read here, reminded the painter of “champagne bottles floating bottom up.” There is Josiah Wedgwood’s 1770 black stoneware teapot, “designed to imitate basalt,” the volcanic rock widely admired in Pompeii’s ruins by Europeans taking the Grand Tour. And there is a bright orange wooden tiger made around 1900 for the Dentzel Carousel Co., one of 40 painted carousel animals in the collection.
“Whimsy” brings us a rooster barber’s chair from the late 19th century: a carousel animal turned into a child’s haircut throne. And if that repurposing makes it seem a bit inauthentic, we are reminded that Webb toyed with the functions of objects, turning vases into lamps, bandbox linings into wallpaper.
A swordsman whirligig from the same period is a maniacal pirate who would menacingly — or comically? — swing his blades in the breeze. A squirrel cage provides nesting areas resembling Georgian town houses, along with a pet running wheel attached to mechanical figures who come to life when it turns. There are scrimshaw pie crimpers, swan soup tureens and inkwells shaped like a mandolin, a peacock, a shoe.
These objects are charming, uncommon and finely made; almost all are in some way disorienting. Porcelain is made to look like stone, painted wood to resemble animal fur. A rooster sits still for a haircut, and a writing tool is turned into a bird. The objects are removed from their contexts, encouraging aesthetic examination. They are also redolent of a lost world, providing glimpses of other ways of living and seeing.
In the pattern category, for example, we witness the early-19th-century intoxication with patterned decoration: A stencil kit here belonged to an itinerant decorator who traveled around New England, painting the walls and furniture of middle-class households. A lovely 1844 painting of a girl in such a home is by Joseph Whiting Stack, another itinerant craftsman, who provided services for the bereaved: He specialized in “painting from the corpse” — which is what his subject was.
One of the most telling categories is scale. Here is a gigantic rocking chair from the mid-19th century, perhaps a trade sign — a symbolic shingle of sorts for a furniture maker — which Webb used as a prop for lighthearted photographs. A huge hanging molar would have once indicated a dentist’s office, and a small 19th-century carriage here was made for a child.
The sense of skewed scale persists after you exit: Buildings that appear grand in ordinary life seem toylike in Webb’s museum-village. The visitor is transformed into a Gulliver or an Alice, resembling a child for whom adult objects loom large, or an adult for whom a child’s playthings seem like miniatures. A folk museum might present such objects for simple contemplation, but Webb had something else in mind: creating juxtapositions, unsettling expectations. We are in a world of play.
This approach is not frivolous, but practical, attentive to the activities of everyday life. We are asked to cultivate a childlike amazement at what we see. But there is also a sense of caution mixed with the wonder, a sense of fragility, a recognition of the vulnerability of glass, tin and toy.
The Shelburne’s exhibitions regularly draw on such tastes and complications, often in unexpected ways. In the fine new show “Wyeth Vertigo,” for example, Denenberg explores vertiginous perspectives in the arts of three generations of Wyeths. The centerpiece is Andrew Wyeth’s “Soaring” (1942-50), from the Shelburne’s collection: We are above a group of turkey buzzards circling over an isolated farm in a stark autumnal landscape; the vista is tilted, as if we, too, were soaring, scavenging birds.
The painting was one of Webb’s last acquisitions. Although it has a skewed scale, like other objects here, it is hardly whimsical; the play is deadly serious. But step outside the exhibition and onto the grounds, where a restored steamboat is permanently docked on the lawn, and it all falls back into perspective. I’m already preparing to return.