"When I met Frank Horton and saw the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in 1976, I put down the Confederate flag and picked up a chair leg. How much better to see the South through its art, to understand its identity through its achievements rather than through the sacrifice of war. Here was an integrated statement about the South, its beginnings and expansion, its ethnic and historical richness."
Dale L. Couch
Curator of decorative arts at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Dale Couch is part of the thirty-five-member advisory board that is helping to revitalize MESDA, part of Old Salem Museums and Gardens in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Moving away sharply from traditional period-room displays, MESDA is reinstalling its galleries, expanding its collections, and revamping its influential research and publishing programs-all in time for its fiftieth anniversary in 2015.
The Catawba Gallery at the Museum of Early southern Decorative Art
The most dramatic changes are to MESDA's collections. In 2007 the institution moved its dateline forward to 1861 and began closing gaps in its holdings. Many of its fifty-plus purchases since then are from the southern backcountry, which MESDA defines as Tennessee, Kentucky, and the western regions of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia.
The initiative is led by Ragan Folan, Old Salem's president and CEO since February 2012, and Robert A. Leath, a native North Carolinian plucked from Colonial Williamsburg in 2006 to be Old Salem's vice president of collections and research and chief curator.
Pride propelled the southern decorative arts movement, whose start is often associated with the 1931 publication of Southern Antiques by Paul H. Burroughs. The first Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum in 1949 drew attention to the paucity of scholarship on southern decorative arts and is said to have spurred the pivotal exhibition Furniture of the Old South: 1640-1820 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts three years later. The show included thirteen objects from Winston-Salem collections, chosen by Helen Comstock of The Magazine Antiques and Frank L. Horton (1918-2004), a local antiques dealer turned museum professional who supervised Old Salem's restoration between 1950 and 1972.1
"What interests me is how many pieces in the 1952 show came from Winston-Salem collections and, in particular, were from the collection of Ralph P. Hanes (1898-1973)," says Daniel K. Ackermann, who was named associate curator of the MESDA collection in 2007. A textiles executive who began collecting in the 1920s, Hanes was the first of his set to combine traditional American connoisseurship with the decorative arts of the southern backcountry.2