Editor’s letter, September 2009

Editorial Staff Opinion

One of the things I admire about Electra Havemeyer Webb was her instinctive sense that the cultural designations of high-, low-, and middlebrow were silly.  I do not mean to suggest that Webb was a prophet of late twentieth-century multiculturalism or that she could have argued for the relative merits of a beautifully carved duck decoy vis à vis a fine Degas. She couldn’t, and she wouldn’t have seen the point. For her, the decoy and the painting were both objects of astonishment and delight, but she knew that while the latter was justly praised, the former was likely to be overlooked. Thus the long journey to establish her multibuilding Shelburne Museum with its irreverent assemblage of the overlooked—decoys, hatboxes, tools, rowdy circus ephemera, ceramics, glass canes, and everything else that struck her as important and in need of rescue, including some really big items such as a lighthouse and a side-paddle-wheel steamer.

Several months ago I was discussing Electra Webb and the resilience of the Shelburne with my friend Tom Armstrong, former director of the Whitney Museum. That talk resulted in a plan to take eight artists up to the museum to see what they each made of the collections. We did just that with the, to me, astonishing and delightful results you can read about in Eleanor Gustafson’s article, “The present learns from the past.”

The very American struggle to make our culture both democratic and distinguished is one that the Shelburne has engaged in with great success. The countervailing impulse, to divide and categorize and limit, is one that would have defeated a smaller spirit and lesser talent than the African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, whose triumphs are beautifully described by the painter and critic Maureen Mullarkey in “Making the whole world kin.” Tanner no longer lacks admirers, but it took another artist to see just how well he charted his course through the difficult waters of racism on the one hand and the demands of race on the other.

The quiet surprise of this issue lies in Marybeth De Filippis’s article on the seventeenth-century Brooklyn merchant Margrieta van Varick, the subject of an exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center in New York this fall. This twice married and well-traveled Dutch woman came here and set up a thriving trade in textiles while bringing with her a wide range of exotic goods. Was her East Indian silver a precursor of the designs we know from colonial silversmiths such as Peter van Dyck? Quite likely, which makes this story of a Flatbush woman another fascinating element in the global reach of local design.

Tom Savage, the director of museum affairs at the Winterthur Museum, has an unerring (and highly amusing) sense of what keeps a historic place alive and what will mummify it. His article on Eyre Hall on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where eight generations of the same family have lived, epitomizes what the writer Howard Mansfield describes as the best kind of preservation. “True preservation,” he says, is “like the hand that shelters a fire from the wind. It protects the spark of life.” The spark of life is very much there in Eyre Hall and is brought to us in Savage’s words and in the photographs of Langdon Clay.