WINTERTHUR, DEL. — In late September 2012, about 200 graduates of Winterthur’s dual graduate degree programs in American material culture and conservation assembled at the former estate of Henry Francis du Pont to honor the founding of the most successful experiment of its kind.
“There are other art conservation programs and other art history or museum studies programs, but nowhere else is there the collaboration of the two — combined with such amazing access to a collection like Winterthur’s,” Brock W. Jobe said at the time.
Over two days, more than 30 alumni spoke at half-hour intervals on topics as disparate as mummies at the Brooklyn Museum and disaster relief in Mississippi and Iraq. Had every Winterthur fellow, as the graduates are called, taken a turn at the podium, the program would have lasted two months.
In partnership with the University of Delaware, Winterthur has trained nearly 850 individuals since the founding of the tandem programs in 1952 and 1974. Graduates work in museums and historical societies, auction houses and galleries, and as appraisers, fundraisers, editors and publicists. The network, which by 2012 extended to 41 states and nine countries, has shaped the entire field of American decorative arts in its own image and contributed markedly to its professionalization. Can it reshape itself to meet the changing demands of a new century?
The answer in part could be found on a threatening day in February when 11 students, members of the Class of 2015, plus three University of Delaware graduate students in related disciplines, assembled in the museum’s rotunda to colloquize on their recent two-week study trip to England. Present was Winterthur’s director, David P. Roselle, a past president of the University of Delaware; benefactor Donald J. Puglisi, whose endowment gift helps underwrite the trip; and assorted museum staff, many of whom are involved in teaching.
Orchestrating the presentation was Jobe, who returned to Winterthur full time in 1993 having held curatorial posts at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Colonial Williamsburg and Historic New England for two decades beginning in 1972. He has been Winterthur’s professor of American decorative arts since 2000, when he persuaded former Winterthur director Leslie Greene Bowman to designate an endowed, dedicated teaching position. Jobe has built on the legacy of past instructors, from the charismatic Charles F. Montgomery and his wife, Florence, to Benno Forman, R. Peter Mooz, Ken Ames, Robert Blair St George, Barbara Ward, Cheryl Robertson, Ann Smart Martin and Gretchen Buggeln.
The role of teacher suits Jobe, who, a leather-patched tweed jacket slung over his lanky frame, is boyish in his enthusiasms and manner. He laughs readily, is a genuinely sympathetic listener and, rare for the museum field, has distinguished himself as both a scholar and teacher. Students, past and present, adore him.
“I feel blessed and privileged to have studied with Brock. He brings such joy to what he does. He is brilliant but humble. It’s a rare grouping of qualities,” says Christie Jackson, a 2009 graduate who is now curator of decorative arts at Old Sturbridge Village.
A native Virginian, Jobe moved frequently as a child as his late father, a surveyor for the state, traveled from one assignment to the next. He studied history at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., where at age 20 he married Barbara, his wife of 46 years, with whom he has two sons. When an instructor pointed Jobe toward Winterthur, which then as now offers students a tuition-free education plus a generous stipend, he was intrigued. All doubt was settled on interview weekend in March 1970 when he dined in splendid fashion with other prospects at Mount Cuba, the home of Mr and Mrs Lammot du Pont Copeland.
“I’ve landed on Mars and I like it,” he recalls thinking.
Jobe’s small office in the Louise du Pont Crowninshield Research Building offers clues to his nature. Shelved in no discernible order, a catholic array of references — from Irving Lyon’s Colonial Furniture of New England (1892) to Wendy Kaplan’s California Design, 1930–1965 (2011) — occupy one wall. Elsewhere are vintage views of student sessions with Montgomery and Benno Forman, the Winterthur instructor who mentored Jobe, whose sustained interest in Boston cabinetmakers and their sphere of influence led most prominently to Portsmouth Furniture: Masterworks from the New Hampshire Seacoast (1993) and Harbor & Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710–1850 (2009). Jobe, the lead author for Harbor & Home, edited both books and organized their accompanying exhibitions, demonstrating early on his talent for inspiring and leading others.
“To a large degree, working with Benno on my thesis topic, Boston furniture made between 1725 and 1760, was the beginning of all that followed. I found a niche,” he admits.
Behind Jobe’s desk are group portraits of his students, starting with the graduating Class of 2001. He prides himself on their progress. His protégés work at museums and historical societies across the country, from Historic New England to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and at auction houses such as Garth’s in Ohio.
“The program attracts unbelievably talented people. They will be running museums and galleries and will leave their mark. It’s what keeps me excited and hopeful,” he says.
Jobe rejects the suggestion that the Eighteenth Century, Winterthur’s original focus and its founder’s greatest love, has been “researched to death.” He asks, “How many books continue to be published on Lincoln? The decorative arts field is wide open in every period.”
That said, the Winterthur program in American material culture has steadily broadened its focus, even deleting the word “early” from its name in 2007.
“Winterthur’s collection emphasizes the period 1640 to about 1860, but the reality is that, through field trips and our network of connections in the museum world and art market, we can help students access collections of any kind,” he stresses. These days, he teaches a course in proto-modern to contemporary design in alternate years.
“We want to expose students to as much as possible. Many are looking at more recent design, an interest they bring with them when they arrive, and at a wider variety of materials, from stained glass to bicycles to ocean liners,” he says.
Field trips — north to New England, south to Charleston and more recently to England — have long been a memorable part of the vocationally oriented program. Coming up is a trip to East Greenville, Penn., to visit Knoll, which manufactures designs by Twentieth Century masters Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Harry Bertoia, Frank Gehry and Maya Lin; a tour of Hearne Hardwoods, a specialty lumberyard in Oxford, Penn; and a visit to Rago Auctions in Lambertville, N.J., where students will select examples of Twentieth Century furniture for acquisition by a hypothetical museum.
“The exercise is intended to mimic the experience of a curator who is seeking permission from a director or collections committee to make an acquisition. Each student must know the object thoroughly and make a compelling case for its acquisition,” Jobe explains.
Employment prospects for graduates have changed since the 1970s, Jobe admits, citing competition among graduate level programs, fewer new museums and the not-for-profit sector’s increased emphasis on development and marketing.
“Years ago, many students in the program sought to become museum curators. Now most consider a far broader array of opportunities in history, art and the marketplace. Internships or contract positions have become the norm at the start of a career,” he says.
Such fluidity has led to more exchange between museums and the antiques trade.
“Today, the professions are intertwined and interdependent. Some of the foremost scholars, frankly, are dealers. They see more material than curators and bring an incredible knowledge of objects to what they do,” says Jobe, who has collaborated with Massachusetts dealers Clark Pearce and Gary Sullivan, among others.
“Brock in particular embraced the dealer community and learned how to work productively with it. He inspires a following. It’s a great part of his legacy,” says Sullivan, a co-author of Harbor & Home. Jobe sees creative collaboration as a way for budget-stretched museums to maximize their resources. He cites as an example his current project, Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture, which joined Winterthur with ten partner institutions for more than a year of exhibitions and events.
The Four Centuries collaboration will continue bearing fruit when Jobe retires from Winterthur in 2015. Jobe, Jackson and Pearce are conducting ongoing research on the Sutton, Mass., cabinetmaker Nathan Lombard and his circle. Jobe is also working on the Boston Furniture Archives, an online digital database of furniture made in Boston and environs between 1630 and 1930. Sponsored by Winterthur, the database builds on files in the museum’s Decorative Arts Photographic Collection (DAPC). The initial phase of the project is expected to take two years and will eventually include roughly 3,000 records.
Two by two on that February day, the students take to the lectern. They are poised and articulate, already adept at public speaking and canny in their use of the latest presentation software. In their two-hour performance they demonstrate taste, judgment, erudition and — critically, as Jobe sees it — the ability to collaborate.
“Throughout my career, it has been enjoyable to play a key role but also to see other people play key roles and to give them credit for their contributions. It is really important that that happens,” he notes.
He adds, “For me, the joy of my work centers on the people I’ve met, people who are passionate about objects and love to share that passion. We should all take pleasure in the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful things around us.”
A dinner in Jobe’s honor is planned for Saturday, April 26, at 8 pm at the Philadelphia Antiques Show. The show runs at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, 1101 Arch Street, April 25–29. For dinner tickets, 203-364-9913 or www.adadealers.com.