A Conversation With Patricia E. Kane Wunsch Americana Foundation Award Winner

NEW HAVEN, CONN. -- Patricia E. Kane is not one to do things by halves. In an era of instant communications and half-baked pronouncements, the Friends of American Arts Curator of American Decorative Arts at Yale University Art Gallery sets the standard for an almost old-fashioned kind of scholarship, one that is patient, thorough and astonishingly free of ego or artifice. Her best known contributions, Colonial Massachusetts Silversmiths and Jewelers: A Biographical Dictionary Based on the Notes of Francis Hill Bigelow and John Marshall Phillips (Yale, 1998) and the Rhode Island Furniture Archives, launched online in 2011, have invigorated old inquiries, expanding each subject by documenting thousands of craftsmen, many of them previously unknown. It is a lode that other investigators will mine for decades to come.

It is no surprise that Kane, who believes in creating tools for others to use, is admired for her generosity. In a career spanning nearly five decades, she has mentored dozens of young scholars and befriended many of the field’s best-known collectors, dealers and auctioneers. Her long association with one collector of American decorative arts — Eric M. Wunsch, known as Martin to his friends — prompted the Wunsch Americana Foundation to name Kane the first winner of its merit award for outstanding dedication and contribution to the American arts. She will be honored in New York during Americana Week at a champagne reception at Sotheby’s on January 21. (The reception is open to the public but advance registration required at 212-894-1038.)

“Pat is a great example of someone who has shared her interest in the field,” said foundation president Peter Wunsch, who conceived of the award as a way of affirming a culture of collecting that he fears is passing. Wunsch’s father, an MIT-trained engineer whose scholarly approach to objects was rigorous, was especially close to Harold Sack of Israel Sack, Inc, as well as to Bernard Levy of Ginsburg & Levy and Levy Galleries and Dean Failey of Christie’s, to name a few compatriots.

“Fewer and fewer people remain who were part of the golden age of collecting, if you will, that I witnessed firsthand growing up. When I look around today, the salesroom is mostly empty, the faces are unfamiliar and the exchanges aren’t happening,” Wunsch said.

We recently joined Kane at Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG), which formally reopened on December 12 after a multiyear, $135 million renovation that seamed together three disparate buildings, each an artifact of a campus known for its architectural distinction.

Intimate in scale but encyclopedic in content, the museum — which displays 1,100 new acquisitions across a range of specialties — is renowned for American decorative arts, much of it assembled by the early Twentieth Century collectors Francis P. and Mabel Brady Garvan. The trove has swelled during Kane’s tenure, absorbing, among other treasures, John C. Waddell’s gift of more than 150 objects designed between 1925 and 1940 and the Swid Powell design collection, featuring more than 1,500 examples of innovative ceramics, silver, glass, preparatory sketches and prototypes.

That anyone should be astonished that Kane, known for her facility with the most forbidding Seventeenth Century script, is also fluent in the language of Modernism amuses the curator.

“You have to remember, I play with a full deck,” she says.

Yale University Art Gallery is at 1111 Chapel Street in New Haven. For information, 203-432-0600 or www.artgallery.yale.edu. Sotheby’s is at 1334 York Avenue in New York.

 

On The Record With Yale’s Patricia E. Kane

 

Do you credit your interest in historic American design to your Connecticut upbringing?

My parents were intellectually curious people, but they had really no interest in antiques. I think they found my fascination with old stuff a little hard to comprehend.

 

So what prompted your passion?

The Wadsworth Atheneum was a favorite family outing. I thought it was beautiful and imagined working there. In college, I interviewed Sam Wagstaff, at the time the Atheneum’s curator of contemporary art. Afterward I had the cheek to ask if he had a summer job for me. He referred me to the Connecticut Historical Society, whose director, Thompson Harlow, offered me a summer position for $15 a week. I worked there for three summers. Harlow suggested that I continue my studies at Winterthur, where I was a graduate fellow between 1966 and 1968.

 

Did you find your calling at CHS?

Yes. CHS’s curator, Philip Dunbar, put me to work cataloging the society’s large collection of copperplate printed textiles. I was enthralled and hoped to make textiles the subject of my master’s thesis. I was crestfallen when Florence Montgomery, Winterthur’s textiles curator, wasn’t able to make the time. Charles Montgomery said, ‘Well, Patricia, why don’t you write about Seventeenth Century Connecticut Valley furniture?” I spent the summer of 1967 researching. To this day I can read very difficult Seventeenth Century documents because of the work I did that summer.

 

You are known for your close reading of period documents. What draws you to them?

There is an immediacy to handling the actual paper. Speaking at Yale, the historian David McCullough remembered opening letters exchanged by John and Abigail Adams and seeing sand fall out. It made him feel as if he were there.

 

What brought you to Yale?

I arrived July 1, 1968. Charles Montgomery, who was still teaching at Winterthur, recommended that I succeed Yale’s assistant curator John Kirk, who left to go to the Rhode Island Historical Society. I joined Jules Prown, who was curator of the Garvan collection and a professor of the history of art. Montgomery came to Yale permanently in 1970.

 

How has the field of American decorative arts changed over the past four and a half decades?

In the 1960s, everyone was focused on regional schools of furniture making. Charles Montgomery taught very much from the point of view of connoisseurship, what made one thing more exciting visually than another thing. He was also very interested in how objects were made. His first installation at Yale in 1973, designed by Chermayeff & Geismar, reflected that. It was groundbreaking and stemmed from the way that he taught with the collections.

 

How important was the 1976 bicentennial in sparking interest in American decorative arts?

It focused people on early American history and objects. But there was also a very active group of collectors — the Kaufmans, the Kilroys and the Wunschs, to name a few — in the 1970s and 1980s. Israel Sack, Inc was in its prime. So it all came together. And lifestyles were still relatively formal. If you bought Philadelphia furniture, you could imagine living with it.

 

Has YUAG’s interpretative approach changed over time?

Every time you reinstall a collection, you rethink it. In 2001, we started to identify smaller thematic stories within the general stylistic chronology. That effort got a boost by the exhibition “Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness,” which interpreted American art within a cultural context. Material culture themes wind their way through what is still mainly a chronological, stylistic display in our new installation.

 

What does the new installation expand upon?

Among other things, we’ve incorporated a lot more historic architecture. The new galleries for American decorative arts occupy Street Hall, which opened in 1866. We consider the building an artifact and have retained as much of the original architecture as we could. We installed a new period room. Finally, we introduced architectural fragments, such as the lintel designed by Ithiel Town for the Connecticut State House in New Haven and a carved, teak archway made in India for Lockwood de Forest. John Stuart Gordon spearheaded the acquisition of the ecclesiastical window “The Good Knight” by John LaFarge.

 

Have you rebalanced the presentation?

Most of what you see was out in the last installation. We’ve added more late Nineteenth Century and Twentieth Century objects, reflecting recent acquisitions. Our Twentieth Century gallery is larger. We had very few of these pieces when Charles Montgomery was curator.

 

Tell me about your new period room.

The Rowley Parlor is from a mid-Eighteenth Century house in Gilead, part of Hebron, Connecticut. Yale acquired the room, whose paneling dates to around 1770, in 1930 through New Haven architect J. Frederick Kelly, but it remained in storage until now. Uniquely, its summer beam is carved with a vine of fruits and flowers. The room originally had eight layers of off-white paint, which we have conserved.

 

How has Yale’s collection of American decorative arts grown during your tenure?

It has changed enormously since 2001, which was the last big reinstallation, and has roughly doubled since I arrived. One of my goals as curator was to build the Nineteenth Century collections after 1825. We’ve also added pieces from New France and New Spain. Houston collector Bill Hill has given us some wonderful objects from Texas. John Waddell’s major gift of modern American decorative arts catapulted us ahead in that field. We’ve acquired studio glass and are doing a lot with contemporary craft, particularly in wood, silver and jewelry. In 2001, we collaborated on the major exhibition “Woodturning in North America Since 1930,” which really got us going. David and Ruth Waterbury established an endowment to buy turned wood. We will be showing their collection later this year.

 

What is YUAG’s collecting mandate?

We support the university’s teaching mission, which means that we work very closely with Edward S. Cooke Jr, who is the Charles F. Montgomery Professor of American Decorative Arts at Yale. For instance, he wanted a spoon rack, so in 2011, with the help of benefactors, we acquired a great New Jersey example, dated 1737, from Keno Auctions.

 

Anything on your wish list now?

Ned would love to have a piece of pottery by David Drake, but we haven’t found the right one.

 

Your biographical dictionary, Colonial Massachusetts Silversmiths and Jewelers, published in 1998, is a landmark accomplishment. What prompted you to compile it?

My PhD dissertation was on John Hull and Robert Sanderson, who I think of as the first great American silversmiths. Gerry and Barbara Ward, who took over Montgomery’s last project, “Silver in American Life,” when he died in 1978 and I had access to the unpublished research of Francis Hill Bigelow, an early collector and dealer, and John Marshall Phillips, the first curator of the Garvan collection. We knew the research was a goldmine and by the late 1980s decided that it really needed to get published. It provided the foundation for that work.

 

The Rhode Island Furniture Archive, which you began in 2002, was similarly based on a survey of period documents, but you chose to publish online. Why?

The minute Colonial Massachusetts Silversmiths and Jewelers went to typesetting it was out of date. We put the Rhode Island Furniture Archives (http://rifa.art.yale.edu) online so that it could continue to grow, to be refined, to be corrected and to be enlarged. It just seemed like the logical way to go, even though verifying the data entry is time consuming.

 

Where does the Rhode Island Furniture Project stand now?

We are still adding tables and miscellaneous forms. Now that the reinstallation is done, I hope to return to the website and have all the forms accessible. We are also working on an exhibition and publication on Rhode Island furniture, possibly for 2016.

 

What progress have you made in organizing the archives of Israel Sack, Inc, which the museum acquired in 2011?

The money that came with the original gift from Anne and Robert Bass has allowed us to hire a fellow for two years who will organize the archives, which contain more than 7,000 black and white images. Last June, Lee Sack, Robert’s widow, gave us an additional 17,000 slides. A group of Albert’s colleagues — Deanne Levison, Arthur Liverant and Bill Stahl — are raising additional funds with the aim of endowing a graduate curatorial assistant to work with the archive.

 

What is your relationship to Martin Wunsch?

Martin is a good friend. Through him, my husband, Scott, and I came to know circle of collectors who regularly got together in New York, St Louis and elsewhere. Martin had a knack for snagging great stuff. Younger collectors were drawn to him for advice and guidance. He has been a guru to many people

 

I understand that you and Scott have a weakness for the Caribbean island of St Barthelemy.

Yes, we’re hooked. Scott hates winter here so we get away each February. We’ve found a little place out toward Columbier beach that we love.

 

Your thoughts after working with Yale’s collections for 45 years?

I’ve never gotten bored. One is always learning new things, especially as scholarly approaches to objects change.

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