Thursday, March 20, 2008

Dispatches from Across the Pond

Today we hear from guest poster Brian T. Allen, the Addison's Mary Stripp & R. Crosby Kemper Director, who has recently returned with this report from London, England:

The Addison’s wonderful Coming of Age show opened last week at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Much as the Addison is one of the best small museums in America, Dulwich is one of best of its kind in the United Kingdom. The Addison’s great things are in good company with Dulwich’s Rembrandts, Poussins, Claudes, and Murillos.

Coming of Age ran to great acclaim at the Addison last year and then in Dallas at the Meadows Museum. Featuring seventy of our best paintings and sculptures, the show traces the evolution of American art from the provincial and documentary to the international, the abstract, and the cutting edge. It includes some of the greatest objects in the collection from our beautiful Durand landscape
to the dynamic, grand painting by Frank Stella that helped make him internationally famous at the tender age of 22. The exhibition was a wonderful success among the American audiences who saw it, but the jury was out on how British audiences would respond.

Well, the reviews of Coming of Age in the British press have been amazing. There are hundreds of museums and galleries in London, so the competition for press coverage for the arts is very sharp indeed. In face of this, and, yes, I know the Addison’s collection is a great one, I am startled by the fascination with which British critics at least have greeted the show. Indeed, the word “fascinating” appears in the headline of The Guardian’s review as well as Time Out’s full page description of the exhibition. The Guardian’s review highlighted Frederick Remington’s Moonlight, Wolf,
which hangs at Dulwich in an interesting juxtaposition with Georgia O’Keeffe’s Wave Night. I loved the Time Out headline in particular: “a fascinating show of all-American art tracks the States’ growing artistic influence.”

The Daily Telegraph’s review on the Sunday after the show opened called it “meticulously selected and consistently engaging…it is hard to imagine a better short introduction to American art.” The Times selected Coming of Age in the March 16th paper as one of the five must see shows.

The Financial Times’s weekend edition devoted half a page to the exhibition, illustrating one of our beautiful Sargents and our Marsden Hartley.

All the reviews were extraordinarily meaty. In particular, I liked the conclusion of the Financial Times’s review, which is an example of the lengthy discussion of the works on the show that marked each of the reviews in the major papers. The writer describes one of the objects in the final gallery, David Smith’s Structure of Arches:

"It is a beautiful, demonic piece, an icon for the postwar era that America now led, but also a work rooted – in its openness to experience, optimism, and, especially, pungent realism – in those qualities that dominated American art from the start and are triumphantly and consistently showcased here."

I was especially interested in a British venue for Coming of Age because London audiences had never seen a survey show of this quality featuring American art. While American art, especially in the nineteenth century, owed much to British, Dutch, and French art, I wanted to show London audiences that American art offered much that was original, different, and uniquely expressive of American culture.

When I was a curator, I worked closely and comfortably with European institutions so approaching a British museum was no problem. I have always believed that there exists a great hunger in Europe for American art, and this gave us a distinct advantage since we at the Addison have some of the greatest works of American art. We are unusual in the American museum community because the Addison prides itself on its willingness to work with European museums, which requires flexibility and adjustment to a new manner of organizing exhibitions. We sought to place the show where many people would see it, it would be critically reviewed, it would broaden our audience, and it would make a strong intellectual and aesthetic impact.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery was an obvious choice. A new director, Ian Dejardin, was already a lover of American art and himself receptive to a collaboration with an American institution. The museum had already done under Ian’s direction an important Winslow Homer show to which the Addison lent Kissing the Moon. Dulwich, with a great collection of Old Masters, has the same feel as the Addison. Both are small museums with extraordinary collections, a record of exhibitions of the highest quality, and both even occupy elegant neoclassical buildings of serious architectural merit.

Both are located in leafy towns close to major cities, and much as we are a short thirty minutes from Boston, the Dulwich Picture Gallery is an eleven minute train ride from Victoria Station and then a few minutes’ walk from the West Dulwich station. Dulwich even belonged for most of its history to a secondary school, the prestigious Dulwich College, much as the Addison Gallery has been a part of Phillips Academy, Andover for its more than 75 year history. It seemed as close to a marriage made in heaven as a collaboration between two museums could get.

The opening on March 12 was a magical evening. The honorary patron of the exhibition is Robert Holmes Tuttle, the American ambassador to the United Kingdom. A more enthusiastic, gracious, and committed patron would be difficult to find, and in his remarks to the crowd at the opening reception he joked that he felt sheepish in opening the show because he was a student at Andover’s archrival Exeter and Exeter’s campus lacks the special status of having its own world-class museum. Some Phillips Academy alumni based in London with art interests joined us, and on Sunday, March 16, Phillips Academy alumni were invited to a special tour with the added benefit that their children could join the Gallery’s annual Easter Egg Hunt.

I have to say it did feel strange to see Addison art illustrated on posters lining the escalator of the Green Park tube stop and by the trains at South Kensington. Maggie Adler, our director of development, reports that a cab driver she met had known about the show, and I was surprised to overhear two visitors to the John Soane Museum gift shop talking about Coming of Age while I waited to see the gallery that was once the home of the designer of the Dulwich Picture Gallery! Not only have the critics responded to the show but audiences have as well. Attendance in the first week alone helped the Dulwich Picture Gallery break its attendance records.

The show runs in Dulwich until June 8, after which it travels to Venice. I imagine that opening will also be very memorable indeed!

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