Beyond moonlight and magnolias

Hanes influenced other Winston-Salem collectors, among them Frank Horton and his mother, Theodosia Taliaferro (1891-1971). Their initial gift of several hundred documented examples of southern decorative arts, interiors, and an operating endowment formed the basis of MESDA, which they founded in 1965. The collection has since grown to roughly twenty-five hundred artifacts.

MESDA initially displayed its collections in a chronological progression of sixteen period rooms arranged in colonial revival inspired domestic settings and four galleries. MESDA officially limited its scope to work made prior to 1820 in Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. In practice, the museum emphasized high-style objects made by urban craftsmen in Baltimore, Charleston,  Williamsburg, and other coastal style centers.

Horton's most innovative and, arguably, most influential contribution to the study of American decorative arts is MESDA's documentary and field research programs, which since 1972 have identified nearly twenty thousand objects and eighty thousand artists and artisans working in 127 different trades in the early South. In its first decade, MESDA researchers scoured records and field investigators combed the countryside in search of objects with documented histories in southern families, creating a descriptive and photographic record of their finds.

"We would have lost so much in the way of regional history and artifacts had MESDA not undertaken this project when it did," observes Maryland dealer Milly McGehee, MESDA's first field representative. The survey's empirical approach resulted in a race-blind, class-blind, gender-neutral archive that remains the cornerstone of decorative arts studies throughout the South and a model for field research elsewhere.3 "All that cumulative information has really changed southerners' perceptions of themselves and the world's perception of the South," says Virginia antiques dealer Sumpter Priddy III.

Frank Horton's death in 2004 coincided with a period of institutional decline. MESDA cut back on new acquisitions and slowed its  research and publications programs. "The institution went through a period of mourning," says Leath, who spent his first year in Winston-Salem planning MESDA's exhibition at the 2007 Winter Antiques Show in New York. Later that year, he and his colleagues convened a think tank to chart a new direction for the institution, the results of which are seen here.

"It seemed obvious that MESDA had to move beyond Frank's original vision. Craftsmen didn't die out after 1820, they moved west," says novelist Robert Hicks, an original MESDA advisor and an early advocate for the chronological and geographical expansion of its collections. Born and raised in Florida, Hicks moved to Tennessee in 1974. He lives in an eighteenth-century cabin near Leiper's Fork and is leading the campaign to reclaim and preserve Franklin, a Civil War battlefield threatened by development.

MESDA's new focus reflects its view that, away from the coast, traditions of handcraftsmanship survived well into the 1850s, undisrupted until the Civil War. Its expanded scope has revitalized the institution and stimulated a wave of research and collecting that has put MESDA and the southern backcountry at the forefront of American decorative arts studies over the past several years. Most visibly, MESDAs' groundbreaking exhibition Art in Clay: Masterworks of North Carolina Earthenware, organized by Luke Beckerdite, Robert Hunter, and Johanna Brown, will have been seen at five institutions by the time it closes in 2013.

Following the think tank, MESDA's first major acquisition, in 2008, was a walnut, poplar, and yellow pine corner cupboard made in KnoxCounty, Tennessee (see Fig. 3). Independent scholar Tracey Parks will reveal the identity of its Scots-Irish maker, thought to be the state's earliest known cabinetmaker, at MESDA's October conference on American material culture.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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