Archive for the 'Behind the scenes' Category

Unlocking the Secrets of Jeremiah Theus with Colonial Williamsburg Conservator Shelley Svoboda

The passage of time, layers of grime, discoloration, and improper restoration efforts can all hide the true grandeur of an artist’s original work. When this happens, art museums and private collectors alike turn to professional conservators to return a painting to its original glory. The conservation process not only restores a painting to a displayable condition, but when done properly, it also provides clues to an artist’s individual techniques.

At last week’s Insider Art Series event, Colonial Williamsburg Paintings Conservator, Shelley Svoboda, shared her recent experiences in the conservation of paintings by eighteenth century Charleston artist Jeremiah Theus (1716-1774). Among the earliest artists painting in Colonial America, Theus, a native of Switzerland, arrived in Charleston in 1735 as a fully trained painter. He is best known for his portrait paintings and seems to have enjoyed a good deal of success painting Charlestonians in his vibrant Baroque style. Svoboda’s talk inspired new appreciation for this early American artist and encouraged audience members to look closely at the physical aspects of a painting from the canvas and stretcher frame to the artist’s distinct brushwork, impasto, and layering of paint colors.

Highlighting examples from Colonial Williamsburg and the Gibbes permanent collections, Svoboda discussed challenges conservationists face when working with centuries old paintings and demonstrated the techniques used to uncover the artist’s true hand. For example, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s 2012 acquisition of the painting, Portrait of Elizabeth Allen Deas by Jeremiah Theus, added to that institution’s existing portraits by the artist creating a small, yet informative set of works representative of the artist’s oeuvre. However, major treatment was required on the new acquisition, involving careful removal of overpaint from the entire background to once again reveal the artist’s long-lost original.

In the conservation lab Svoboda used ultraviolet light to discern areas of heavy overpaint, and infrared photography and a surgical microscope to see the artist’s working technique. Once the overpaint was removed a layer of heavy grime was revealed, and preserved beneath the grime was the original painted surface ready to be revealed.

Conservation of Jeremiah Theus painting

Conservation of Jeremiah Theus painting

Before, Jeremiah Theus conservation

(Before conservation)
Portrait of Elizabeth Allen Deas (Mrs. John Deas), 1759, attributed to Jeremiah Theus

 

After Conservation

After Conservation efforts

The Gibbes is one of the largest repositories of Theus’s work with twenty-two paintings by the artist in its holdings. During her visit Svoboda had the opportunity to review four of the Gibbes Theus paintings including the companion portraits of Charlestonians William and Mary Mazyck painted by Theus in the 1770s. 

These paintings were moved to Canada by family descendants after the Civil War and were returned to Charleston in the 1980s as a gift to the Gibbes collection. Never before exhibited, Svoboda considers these paintings true treasures as they remarkably retain much of their original paint surfaces. Both are in need of cleaning and stabilization to remove the dirt, grime, and other signs of age that have drained the works of their original vibrancy. With professional conservation these paintings, like that of Elizabeth Allen Deas, could be returned to their original glory.

Shelley reviewing Jeremiah Theus paintings from the Gibbes permanent collection

Shelley reviewing Jeremiah Theus paintings from the Gibbes permanent collection

This spring the Gibbes will launch an Adopt a Painting program in order to raise funds for the conservation of paintings that will be featured in the new installation of the permanent collection. Stay tuned for more exciting conservation news!
Sara Arnold, Curator of Collections

Image credits:

Portrait of Elizabeth Allen Deas (Mrs. John Deas), 1759, attributed to Jeremiah Theus

Images courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Here today, gone tomorrow (or over six months): How we moved out of the Gibbes! (Part II)

phase 3 empty gallery

Empty galleries…finally!

September 2014

The final phase of art packing involved the relocation of the Gibbes nationally-acclaimed collection of over 600 miniature portraits to secure storage at The Charleston Museum. While the miniatures comprise the smallest works in the art collection, planning to transport them just a few short miles up Meeting Street was the most complex of all the art movement. These fragile works on ivory require specialized handling and tightly-controlled climatic conditions at all times; movement had to be smooth and almost completely vibration-free. Once again, our skilled Museum staff and a crew of expert fine art movers accomplished this task. Looking back, it seems we definitely saved the most stressful of the moves for last! If you drop by The Charleston Museum (TMC) this month, several of our miniatures are on display; we can’t thank our colleagues at TMC enough for taking such excellent care of our miniature collection, one of the best in the United States!

miniature drawer

Fragile miniature portraits were the last collection to leave the building

October 2014

When the last piece of art left the building, you might assume collections staff could finally relax, right? Never.  Managing logistics for Insider Art Series exhibitions, preparation for conservation of artwork now five hours away,  attending to a steady stream of loan requests to borrow permanent collection objects packed away, and working with our curators on the many details surrounding reinstallation of the permanent collection now fill our days (and sometimes nights.) No rest for the weary. We also had one final project to manage before our work at 135 Meeting Street could be considered complete: consolidate, pack, move, and store all of the “stuff” that staff wanted to keep for when we re-open. Tables, chairs, exhibition furniture, storage cabinets, art supplies, store inventory, heavy machinery, the kitchen sink…..all head to be dealt with and moved out.  So we did that too; it was hard and tiring and not all that interesting to write about so I’ll skip the details. Once that last piece of our massive move puzzle had fallen into place, we did what Gibbes staff has been talking about for years-celebrated with a roller skating party in our Main Gallery!

 

roller skating

GMA staff on wheels (Zinnia, second from right)

 

Stay tuned for updates on our current and future collection/move activities. We may be working in an office for the time being but the artwork and exhibitions are always on our minds. We’ll make sure you, our supporters and friends, remain part of all the activity and our exciting future!

 

Zinnia Willits, Director of Collections Administration

Here today, gone tomorrow (or over six months): How we moved out of the Gibbes! (Part I)

Here today, gone tomorrow (or over six months): How we moved out of the Gibbes!

The Gibbes Museum of Art closed its doors in August in preparation for a major renovation and expansion. Given the nature of the construction project, it was necessary to empty the building of all its contents….people, office equipment, artwork, exhibition furniture, museum store inventory; everything that was not part of the building structure had to go. Museum staff was tasked with moving over 10,000 pieces of artwork and over 100 years of accumulated “stuff” out of the building over a six-month period. Our small, efficient, energetic staff has proven time and again that we can rise to a challenge and accomplish tasks, but this move project gave us all a moment of pause….and then we got over it and went to work! We accomplished our goal and today the Gibbes is an empty shell ready to be restored to its former glory, but how did we do it??? While I have been known to hold audiences captive for a long time talking about this move project, I realize this is a blog, and will try to convey our process in manageable sections (Part I and part II) rather than looking at the whole elephant!

April 2014

Planning for the collection move began several years ago and involved the coordination of art handling crews, fine art transit companies, and multiple storage locations. As the Director of Collections Administration, my first task was to find over 3,000 square feet of museum-quality space to store the entire art collection. Unfortunately, that does not exist in South Carolina. The closest commercial fine art storage with that amount of available, climate-controlled, secure space is in Orlando, Florida, which we decided was too far away. Instead, I pursued partnerships with our friends, The Charleston Museum, The South Carolina State Museum, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta to store portions of our permanent collection during construction. We are pleased to be working with colleagues and strengthening relationships. Transport Consultants International assisted with the complicated logistics of this move.

print storage room packing

Packing works on paper took place behind-the-scenes in our print storage room

In order to keep the museum open as long as possible, removal of the art collection occurred in four phases. We started the process of packing and moving the collection in April 2014. During the first phase a crew of professional contract art handlers wrapped the museum’s collection of 4000+ works-on-paper and approximately 100 pieces of sculpture. All packing activities took place behind-the-scenes and the museum remained open to the public with little disruption. The images below do very little to convey the volume of material that was wrapped, nor the tight quarters in which the project took place, but you get a general sense of how it was done. The excellent art handling crew that worked with Gibbes staff knocked out this first phase of packing in just ten short (actually really LONG) days. These collections were shipped to The South Carolina State Museum in Columbia in May and are currently enjoying secure, climate-controlled storage under the supervision of the professional staff at the State Museum.

June 2014

Looking back at the whirlwind that was June 2014, it’s hard to believe how much activity took place and that we made it through those 30 days positive and still speaking to one another! The month began with the dreaded office move as museum staff changed operations from 135 Meeting Street to our temporary home in the Franke Building at 171 Church Street. As with any move there was the stress of packing boxes, uprooting comfortable work spaces, considering relocation of files and file cabinets, working out technology issues, planning for the logistics of the actual move, unpacking the boxes, getting used to new offices and work space, and the unsettling feeling of being disconnected from the collection and exhibits. It was a tough few weeks, but we persevered and learned to adjust to the new normal of working in an office building. Well most of us adjusted; I think those of us in collections and curatorial still find it particularly difficult to be away from the art. Meanwhile, back at the museum (which was still open to the public) I was moving forward with phase 2 of packing the collection. Just one week after the office move, the art handling crew returned to pack over 500 paintings and several large sculptures over another two-week period. The Garden and Balcony galleries were closed and set up as packing stations to provide the ample space required. Museum visitors were able to observe the packing process while still enjoying exhibitions in the Main and Rotunda galleries.  I definitely lived a double life in June running (literally) between the new offices at 171 Church Street and the art packing project at 135 Meeting.

phase 2 storage

Painting Storage beginning to empty out.

July 2014

With July came a small respite. Packed paintings were shipped to their temporary home at the High Museum of Art Collections Storage Facility in Atlanta, Georgia. Greg Jenkins and I made the trek to Atlanta (the first of many) to assist with movement of our collections off the trucks and into the storage facility. The capable staff at the High was wonderful to work with and our paintings are stored alongside many treasures from the High’s permanent collection. The remainder of July was spent preparing for the next phase of packing and final closure of the Museum. We also received word that the Gibbes was awarded a Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections Grant  in the amount of $250,000 to improve storage conditions for the museum’s collections. Grant funds will be used to purchase high-quality storage furniture for the renovated collections suite. This exciting news was a great boost for Gibbes staff after a grueling summer of moving.

August 2014

On to August. Time for an end of summer vacation perhaps?? Forget about it! August was crunch time for Gibbes collection staff as the third, and most multifaceted phase of collection packing got under way.  The art handling team (with the addition of a crating specialist) returned once again to pack oversize paintings and all objects on view in The Charleston Story.  This process took place over a three-week period. Crews worked behind-the-scenes to crate oversize paintings in storage until the Museum finally closed to the public.  Once the doors were shut we spread out into the galleries to pack artworks on view for long-term storage. Many of these paintings were large and required sturdy travel crates; the Museum had over 70 high-quality crates constructed by US Art Company to protect our finest works during transit and storage. In the end, four tractor-trailers loaded with all remaining artwork were sent to the High storage facility in early September. Our hallowed halls were finally empty….almost.

Stay tuned for Part II next week!

 

phase 3 crating large painting

Packing a large painting in storage

 

Zinnia Willits, Director of Collections Administration

Building the Gibbes Gator

Gibbes Gator Mascot

Gibbes Gator Mascot, designed by Erin Banks

Art education for children is a fundamental component of the Gibbes Museum of Art. Throughout the year we offer a variety of programs to students of all ages in school and at locations throughout the tri county area. When we reopen in the spring of 2016, the first floor of the museum will be dedicated to classroom space for children and adults. A year ago, Rebecca Sailor, curator of education, introduced the idea of creating a museum mascot. Rebecca felt it was important to have a visual symbol of the museum that could engage and interact with children and families inside and outside of the museum. We began brainstorming with Erin Banks, our graphic designer, and came up with the concept for the Gibbes Gator. We launched the Gator in our summer camp brochure and have been using him on all marketing materials related to children’s programming. Our next step was to reach out to Charleston County School of the Arts visual arts teacher Marie Nichols to ask if her students would be interested in bringing our Gator to life. We wanted a life sized gator who could interact with children at events and eventually, in the museum during school tours, classes, and camp sessions. Marie immediately said yes, and recommended sophomore costume design student Julia Dotson. We met with Julia in September and she agreed to take on the project of building our mascot. We spoke to Julia recently and asked her to give us a glimpse into this exciting project.

When did you become interested in creating art? Or, when did you realize you had a talent for art?

Well, I have been creating ever since I could remember. One of the first toys that my mom ever gave me was a plain black marker and one of those ginormous packs of computer paper. And even when I was small, I remember accumulating inspiration from PBS shows that had something to do with creating, even if it was something like Bob the Builder or a tutorial on how to make Aladdin’s magic carpet out of strips of paper. And I guess I realized I was entirely infatuated with creation was when I decided to try out for the School of the Arts and finally took art lessons— besides the ones offered by the South Carolina public school system. But I never realized that I had a talent until someone like the Gibbes Museum came to ask for a commission!

How long have you been a student at SOA?

I have now attended School of the Arts since the sixth grade, which would be over four years.

Costume design is a new major at SOA, can you tell me more about this major and what it entails? Do you see this as something you will continue to pursue at the college level?

Currently, each costume design student is learning the foundations of sewing and garment making, such as learning to sew a zipper or the daunting, yet exhilarating task of pattern making. And as the year goes by, I believe that we will learn more comprehensive things, for instance, making an entire garment from pattern to embellishments (which sounds easy, but is actually a very difficult task).

The field of costume design currently is one the interests that I have in mind for a college major, my choice, however, still weighs between this, fashion design, and the fine arts.

Gibbes Gator

Gibbes Gator designed by Julia

What was your reaction when we presented the Gibbes Gator project to you? Did this project seem overwhelming?

I was initially honored and trilled to make something for the only art museum in all of Charleston. This is a place I went when I was just six years old and gazed at monumental paintings. And at the time I was offered the commission, it did not appear to be overwhelming, but when I actually started to work on the project I realized that I’d underestimated the amount of attention one costume needs. The actual carving of the foam for each body part proved not as the most troublesome, but actually finding the materials turned out to be the most difficult part. I wanted to capture the ‘chummy’ quality of the drawing that I was presented with (designed by Erin Banks, Gibbes graphic designer), and found that faux lime green upholstery alligator leather would not do the job. After about a month of searching for the perfect, child-friendly material, I finally found the perfect pea green corduroy.

This is something that you are working on outside of school, how are you finding the time?

I genuinely enjoy sitting at home with Edith Piaf music or the television show Twin Peaks in the background while I attempt to create an alligator out of foam and green corduroy pants!

Julia at work on the Gibbes Gator

Julia at work on the Gibbes Gator

Tell me about the process of designing the Gibbes Gator.

Like most of my sculptures ‘Gibbes the Gator’ consists of paper mache and malleable fabric, but this is my first experience carving foam, which I found not as pleasurable as sculpting strips of paper together. But as a mentioned before, trying to find green corduroy in Charleston was a very difficult thing!

The smock that makes up approximately half of the note garment is just a thin canvas material that is standard for most artist smocks. That’s why I wanted to keep the entire garment to a certain style, which was The Wind in the Willows. I first saw this production in California, and was inspired by Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (hence the abundant use of corduroy). This led to the look I wanted for the Gator, which is almost like a man magically made into an alligator that can sing and dance. It’s as if the whole world is a musical!

What has been the most rewarding and the most frustrating aspects of this project?

To be honest, the most exasperating part of this project was finding the materials, and then having to redesign over and over again to accommodate for abilities and resources that were available. Yet, the idea that I am making an entire costume that other people will enjoy is a catalyst to keep working to finish this protracted task!

We are so grateful to the School of the Arts and to Julia for agreeing to take on this challenge! If you are interested in donating to this project, please visit Rally.org or contact Rebecca Sailor at 722.2706 x41 or rsailor@gibbesmuseum.org.

Amy Mercer, Marketing and Communications Manager

A Romance with Cuba, by Dr. Jeb Hallett

 

I have had a romance with Cuba all my life.

Havana Cathedral

Havana Cathedral

At the age of ten, I listened to the Revolution on Radio Havana via my small short-wave radio in my bedroom in West Virginia. I dreamed of visiting Havana. Riding in cool old Chevy convertibles. Maybe seeing Hemingway around town. But, the Revolution ended that dream.

Then came the Gibbes “artistic” trip in February. (Twenty-three Gibbes Fellows traveled to Cuba with Executive Director Angela Mack, Curator of Collections Pam Wall, and Membership Coordinator Amanda Breen to learn about Cuba and its art.) So well organized! So well executed! Angela, Amanda, and Pam hit this one out of the ballpark!

Classic Cars in Cuba

Dr. Hallett enjoying the ride!

Who can forget twenty five Charlestonians riding around Havana like a gang of teenagers  in ‘55 Chevy convertibles? Or, dancing to the music of the Buena Vista Social Club? Or, peering into the windows of Ernest Hemingway’s home at Vinca Figia?

Oh, wait! Angela reminds me that the trip was really about art. The amazing creativity of The Merger, Kadir Lopez, Roberto Fabelo, and Yoan Capote was inspirational for starters. And, the worn patina of the architecture that enigmatically felt both sad and beautiful in the moment. All of this culture in the context a truly resilient people who take pride in their independence and joy of life.

Roberto Fabelo's studio

Roberto Fabelo’s studio

None of this magic would have been possible without the company of so many old and new friends. My wife, Linda Austin, and I will always treasure this trip because of these friends.

So, my next dream: get back to see more of Cuba. When the Gibbes is ready for another Cuban “invasion,” count me in. Maybe on a Harley Davidson motorcycle riding toward Santiago with a Cohiba cigar in mouth and Linda in the sidecar!!

Dr. Jeb Hallett, Gibbes Museum Board Member and Guest Blogger

 

My Charleston Story, as told by the In-House Graphic Designer

Few designers have the privilege of working alongside masterpieces of art, and I count myself among those lucky few!

Six months ago, I joined the Gibbes Museum of Art as the new in-house graphic designer, and I’ve been pinching myself ever since. I recall the rainy summer Charleston day when I interviewed for this position. During the interview, Executive Director Angela Mack made the poignant observation that people in the arts often follow a path that is more meandering than straight-lined. Such has been the case for me. Although I came armed with a BA in graphic design and MFA in illustration, my path has indeed been a meandering one.

Erin Bennett Banks

Erin Bennett Banks

It began over a decade ago, when I left my hometown in upstate New York to venture down south for graduate school. With formal training in graphic design, illustration and studio art, I sought out to build a creative, integrated, meaningful life.

The next ten years were spent building my freelance illustration portfolio, while cultivating a professional career at the Savannah College of Art and Design. My role as director of scholarships, admission, and regional recruitment took me all over the globe, participating in numerous gallery and museum based events around the United States, China and Korea. In fact, during my last years at SCAD, as part of an effort to align with premier galleries and art museums, we began hosting annual information sessions at the Gibbes Museum of Art. I remember thinking this would be an incredible place to work. Kismet in motion!

Fast-forward to today. Not only am I working for a premier art museum, but one that is dedicated to preserving and promoting the art of Charleston and the American South. Surrounded by history, art and story. This resonates. I thrive on storytelling, whether it be using graphic design to tell the story of the Gibbes, or using my oil paints to create an illustration. My dual-career in illustration has often focused on traditional narratives and historic themes, ideas that continue to gain inspiration from my role at the Gibbes.

On my “commute” to the museum, I walk through the canopy of trees (the hidden Gateway Walk) and approach the iconic century-old building, and I am cognizant of my unique role. I get to design all of the print materials for this amazing art museum!

Graphic designers are the ultimate visual communicators. My goal is always to organize information in a way that clearly communicates the message in a beautiful way. As a designer, I have the power to pair together fonts and images into materials that connect with viewers and make a lasting impression. If I succeed, then each person that encounters a Gibbes branded piece will catch a glimpse of the Gibbes experience, a teaser that culminates in more foot traffic and deeper devotees.

<em>Photography and the American Civil War</em> banner

Photography and the American Civil War banner.

Upon my inaugural tour of the Gibbes gallery space in late August, I was given my first assignment: to create all of the museum signage for Photography and the American Civil War, the record-breaking fall exhibition organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Posters of gilt-framed Civil War soldiers. My responsibilities included: banners featuring original Matthew Brady photographs, and old-timey typefaces and sepia toned images (a haunting contrast to the current Romantic Spirits exhibition). It was a sweet introduction to the thrill of welcoming a new exhibit every few months.

And that was only the beginning. Next, I was asked to design collateral for the Distinguished Lecture Series, featuring a Picasso (pinch) and Cubist art collector Leonard A. Lauder, Chairman Emeritus of The Estée Lauder Companies Inc. Then we moved onto the Gibbes Women’s Council Art of Design invitation honoring renowned New York interior designer Charlotte Moss. This project was followed closely by a collaboration with auxiliary group Gibbes, etc. to create the Kiawah Art & House Tour materials. Ads, posters, postcards and such, for a myriad of Gibbes events, exhibitions, educational programming, and of course, the epic Annual Report (a member magazine that includes information on exhibitions, programs, events, education, development and the financials for the past fiscal year)!

Gibbes Annual Report

The Gibbes 2013 Annual Report cover.

One of the benefits of working as an in-house designer is the opportunity to build relationships and become truly invested in the mission of the organization. And so, I’ve been warmly welcomed by the immensely talented Gibbes staff and wildly supportive auxiliary groups. This is the life force that is so necessary in the arts community, reminding Charleston about the importance of supporting the city’s only visual arts museum. Now I get to be part of this life force.

I continue to work as an illustrator, which I juggle alongside my dream job at the Gibbes. As an illustrator I’ve created three nationally published children’s books, which have earned recognition in The New York Times’ Best Children’s Books, The Washington Post, and Parents magazine, as well as the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award and Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights Outstanding Book Award. Other clients have included Highlights for Children Magazine, The Weekly Reader and Harvard Business Review. And I occasionally pause to participate in a gallery show. My work has been featured in collaborative shows with Faith Ringgold, Benny Andrews, and Eric Carle (The Very Hungry Caterpillar illustrator & author) in exhibitions at the Asheville Art Museum and other galleries in the southeast. Locally, my work has been highlighted in Charleston City Paper, The Post and Courier’s Charleston Scene and the cover of Art Mag.

<em>Patchwork Path</em> Cover by Erin Banks

The Patchwork Path, cover by Erin Banks.

I also teach Drawing and Photoshop classes at Trident Technical College and have recently worked as a consultant for the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, endeavors that keep me connected to higher education.

And although I’ll always be hopelessly devoted to my native New York, I consider myself an adopted Southerner. Married to my Southern soul mate (and co-artist Timothy Banks), we live a thoroughly creative, chaotic life together with a toddler, baby, and two Southern pugs.

I couldn’t be happier. And I couldn’t work for a more inspiring, culturally significant landmark in the heart of the most beautiful city in the world. Charleston is lucky to have a gem like the Gibbes Museum of Art. And I am so lucky to add the Gibbes to my story now.

Erin Bennett Banks, Graphic Designer, Gibbes Museum of Art

Curating Conversations

As a Programming & Events intern this semester, I’ve had the great opportunity to share the room with some pretty remarkable people. This list includes guests of the Gibbes such as Jeff Rosenheim of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Charleston’s own Jonathan Green, artist Louise Halsey (daughter of Corrie McCallum and William Halsey), Lieutenant Governor Glenn McConnell, and Estée Lauder chairman emeritus Leonard Lauder. But the Gibbes has some remarkable people of its own. Its entire staff—from Executive Director Angela Mack to the custodian Russell Morrison—realizes the importance of museums as places to bring art and people together. The Gibbes staff is composed of hard workers who are dedicated to the success of the museum’s mission, to preserve and promote the art of this unique city.

Lieutenant Governor Glenn McConnell at the Gibbes Museum.

Lieutenant Governor Glenn McConnell speaks to a group of visitors in the Photography and the Civil War exhibition.

To some, museums appear to be passive temples of art where visitors must be silent and detached. But the Gibbes is so invested in this community; they seek to promote an active conversation between their collection, their programs, and the public. And to initiate such great conversations, the Gibbes is bringing some really good stuff to our city.

Traveling from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibition Photography & the American Civil War presents intimate snapshots of life during the war—battlefields, street scenes, political propaganda, portraits of the young and the old. The exhibition also shows how photography influenced how we perceive the Civil War today. I was fortunate enough to talk with the Met’s curator in charge of the Department of Photography, Jeff Rosenheim, when he visited for the exhibit’s opening. He was incredibly knowledgeable about photography and its history and uses. But what impressed me most was his deep passion for the impact of photography. Jeff explained to me how photography is accessible, perhaps more so than any other medium, and how this justifies its instant popularity. He explained how photography is a democratic medium, an art form for everyone.

Photography and the American Civil War

Visitors explore the Photography and the American Civil War exhibition at the Gibbes.

I believe this idea of democracy and art for all can also be found in the Gibbes’s mission. They strive to present art and programming that is relatable to everyone. Their art speaks, and is, Charleston’s history—our history. If you love our city, then there is absolutely no way that you could not love what the Gibbes has to offer. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity I’ve had this semester to work with such a dedicated team of art managers who care so greatly about art and its influence in Charleston. Like I mentioned above, the Gibbes team is truly committed to their work in this community and this is what will always stick with me long after my internship is over. I know what I’ve learned here will benefit me wherever I end up in the art world, and I’m proud to call Charleston, the Gibbes, and its great art my starting point.

Intern Amelia Roland

Intern Amelia Roland stands next to a painting by Robert Gordy at the Gibbes.

Amelia Roland, Public Programs & Marketing Intern and guest blogger

Esther Ferguson: A Woman with a Vision

Esther Ferguson is small in stature, but her dedication to the Gibbes Museum is immense. A long-time supporter of the museum, she joined the Gibbes Board in the spring of 2013. I sat down with her recently to talk about the inspiration behind The Distinguished Lecture Series.

Esther Ferguson at the Gibbes Museum of Art.

Esther Ferguson at the Gibbes Museum of Art.

Fifty years ago Esther Ferguson was a young woman alone in Manhattan. She traded the security of Hartsville, South Carolina, for the great unknown of New York City. “I was scared. Women didn’t do that sort of thing back then. I was very poor and on the weekend, I would go alone to The Metropolitan Museum to listen to the lecture series. I remember walking out of a lecture and sitting down to cry because I’d learned so much about the art world, and because I realized how much more there was to learn!” The experience was nurturing during an unsettling time in her life. “Attending these lectures kept me going throughout the week,” she explained.

The significance of the Met lecture series stayed with Mrs. Ferguson throughout the years, and after returning to the south, she began to dream about bringing a lecture series to Charleston. In 2010, the Fergusons loaned works of art from their private collection to the Gibbes Museum to form the exhibition, Modern Masters from the Ferguson Collection. Two mixed-media works by world-renowned installation artists Christo and Jeanne Claude were part of the exhibition, which ran from April 30–August 22, 2010. As part of Modern Masters, Christo was invited to speak about his large-scale temporary works of art including the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont-Neuf bridge in Paris, the 24 ½-mile-long Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin Counties in California, and The Gates in New York City’s Central Park.

Esther-Ferguson-Christo-JuliaLynnPhoto

Esther Ferguson with artist Christo.

“At the end of his stunning lecture, it was the men who clapped the loudest,” recalls Mrs. Ferguson. “After the lecture these men gathered around Christo and told him they didn’t know if they liked his work, but they understood it. That’s when I knew art could fill stadiums.” She smiled.

The Old Mill, ©Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York; by Pablo Picasso, oil on canvas; 15 x 18 inches, Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Trust.

The Old Mill, ©Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York; by Pablo Picasso, oil on canvas; 15 x 18 inches, Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Trust.

Mrs. Ferguson began to formulate her plan to establish a fund to create the Distinguished Lecture Series at the Gibbes Museum. She had the perfect speaker in mind, her friend of thirty years, Mr. Leonard Lauder. “Every time you see him it’s art, art, art,” she laughed. Mr. Lauder’s attention to art became evident to the world at large last spring when he donated his $1.5 billion collection of Cubist art to the very museum that brought Mrs. Ferguson to tears all those years ago. In a Vanity Fair article, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas P. Campbell (who visited the Gibbes museum in October) said of the donation, “In one fell swoop this puts the Met at the fore-front of early-20-century art.” Mrs. Ferguson decided she would ask her friend and philanthropist, Leonard Lauder, to be the inaugural Distinguished Lecture speaker. “He is a very private man, but when I asked he said yes. I’ll do this for you Esther.”

Leonard A. Lauder

Leonard A. Lauder, Chairman Emeritus, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Chairman Emeritus, The Estee Lauder Companies Inc.

We are so fortunate to have friends like Mrs. Ferguson who are working to bring outstanding, world-renowned artists, art collectors, museum leaders, philanthropists, and art historians to Charleston to stimulate discussion about the visual arts and creativity. We are already planning for future speakers and are excited about the future of the Distinguished Lecture Series!

Amy Mercer, marketing and communications manager, Gibbes Museum of Art

The inaugural lecture in the Distinguished Lecture Series, featuring Leonard A. Lauder, is Wednesday, November 20. A limited number of tickets are still available for this event at gibbesmuseum.org/events or by calling 843.722.2706 x21.

The Spirit of the Garden

When Gibbes Executive Director Angela Mack first asked me to visit the museum to discuss the renovation project, I immediately began to pay attention to the beauty that is everywhere in Charleston. As plans progressed for the interior of the museum, I began to relax and enjoy evening walks around the city. I was impressed by the many beautiful gardens I encountered. I have always loved gardens and have had the great fortune to see many of the premier gardens of Europe, and all over the world, thanks to my “field trips” for the Metropolitan Museum. However, during the busy days at the Gibbes I rarely seemed to find the time to contemplate the garden at the back of the museum.

A view of the courtyard, ca. 1960s, with the Charleston Library Society in the distance.

A view of the courtyard, ca. 1960s, with the Charleston Library Society in the distance.

Once I began to consider the courtyard space hidden behind the building, I started asking everyone about the history of this grand old garden. Having spent 30 years therapeutically strolling in Central Park outside of The Metropolitan Museum, I knew that great gardens have a spirit of their own. I started to examine the history of the Courtyard through images of the garden taken over the years. Although many good attempts were made to upgrade it, the garden never seemed “just right” to complement the museum’s Beaux-Arts building.

The rear facade of the original museum building.

The rear facade of the original museum building.

The Persephone fountain and rear facade of the Gibbes.

The Persephone fountain, centered in the courtyard, after the 1970s museum addition.

In addition to the history of the Gibbes garden space, I learned more about tradition of Charleston gardens over the centuries and started to see similarities. The Gibbes archives contain numerous images of the transformations behind the museum, and curator Sara Arnold helped me compile examples and track the changes over the years. The museum’s earliest photos of the Courtyard date back to the 1930’s when all of the plant material was smaller and the trees were not so overwhelming. The historic iron gates, which were originally part of the William Aiken House, were completely visible. As you can see in the images included in this post, there were some winners and some losers in the various renovation designs, but each transformation had some good ideas that helped take the garden plan forward. Angela and I began talking about how we could not renovate the building without paying serious attention to the garden and the Gateway Walk, as well as those marvelous gates that mark the boundary between the Gibbes and the Charleston Library Society.

The Gibbes Couryard ca. 1947, looking towards the Charleston Library Society

The Gibbes Couryard ca. 1947, looking towards the Charleston Library Society.

That is when I first began to really understand that there was something missing at the back of the Gibbes. The Gibbes Courtyard Garden now contains too much mature plant material that overwhelms the minimal ground cover. As everyone in Charleston knows, if you leave a garden to its own vices it can soon become a beast and quickly grow out of control. As the months went by and we planned the new spaces for the museum’s interior, I realized that the garden had to be next on our list of improvements. So my evening walks began to shift focus from therapeutic strolls to investigative research. First, I walked the Gateway Garden Walk to see what all the fuss was about. The Charleston Historic Gateway Walk starts at St. John’s Lutheran Church on the eastern side of the peninsula and winds west to Archdale Street, meandering through historic cemeteries and walkways including the Gibbes Courtyard.

The Charleston Gateway walk

The Charleston Gateway Walk from the Gibbes Courtyard towards Meeting Street.

I explored further south towards the Battery, touring the historic areas of Charleston and the centuries old walkways. I strolled through the neighborhoods near the water, and discovered that many gardens took on an entirely new appearance and feeling during the hours between sunset and dusk. I noted that many easily converted into special private event spaces and how the use of lighting could give a garden a spectacular appearance at night. As for the city’s public garden spaces, the thoughtful ambient and directional lighting made those areas very accessible for the public. In the last 6 months I was invited to several private gardens so that I could continue my research. Each time I visited a new space I observed how the gardeners grouped the plants, where they employed water as a relaxation tool, and how they used mature plants as a foundation to ground the newer additions. I saw sculptures, stone walls, and “botanical backdrops” that wrapped the garden spaces with flowers, shrubs, perennials and annuals. These “private garden worlds” provide a haven from the stress of the city. What I love about Charleston (among many things) is the way the landscapers and gardeners create restful environments for beauty, contemplation, and relaxed socializing.

A current view of the rear portion of the courtyard

A current view of the rear portion of the courtyard, facing northwest.

After seeing so many gorgeous gardens in downtown Charleston and in the neighboring communities, I realized that the new Gibbes Garden has to follow the spirit of the city. It needs to become a haven for residents and tourists of the city, and it has to be an urban garden that reflects the artistic mission of the museum. This new garden must be contemplative, restful, artistic, and most important of all—an inspiration for everyone. At my home, I have a large garden with a meadow that looks out onto a regional valley near the foothills of the Berkshires. That is where I go when I need to clear my head. The romance and beauty of a garden can be the key to artistic inspiration.

An architectural rendering of the Gibbes Courtyard as viewed from the first floor interior of the renovated museum.

An example of an architectural rendering of the Gibbes Courtyard as viewed from the first floor interior of the renovated museum.

The next step involves bringing in the pros to help us plan the exterior grounds that surround the museum. After conducting a proposal and interview process, we are pending Board approval on the selection of a landscape architect to create and implement a new courtyard design. Just as planning any great work of art, the composition of elements in a garden must provide cohesion and contrast, inviting the eye to move around the space and find places of rest. The Gibbes Museum strives to preserve and promote the art of Charleston and the American South—soon the garden will do the same thing. I can’t wait to walk into the museum and see a brand new, artful garden through the large windows at the back of the building!

Jeff Daly, museum designer and guest blogger

A Passion for Museums

It has been my pleasure for the past month to intern with the Gibbes’ Programs, Events, and Marketing department. I assisted in writing social media posts, responding to donation requests, documenting press and brainstorming ways to publicize the upcoming exhibit, Photography and the American Civil War, (which of course I will plug here) opening September 27th.

I was thrilled to have been offered the position. It has always been a favorite pastime of mine to spend hours wandering through galleries, sometimes in search of a particular work but often aimlessly, soaking in the history. I have traveled to cities for the sole purpose of catching an alluring exhibition, and have a bucket list of museums that I would like to see. I hold on to my ticket stubs and write any significant works on the back, so that I can recall the experience in the future. To me, a visit to a museum is a cathartic experience that we can collectively enjoy. Much of the modern world has access to museums, and the privilege of plumbing our history in the comfort of a quiet, air-conditioned building.

Each museum has a different flow and architectural structure; the organic spiral of the Guggenheim Museum in NYC creates a totally different atmosphere from the soon-to-be-renovated Beaux-Arts style of the Gibbes. Each museum has a unique collection; I was amazed to find out that the Gibbes over 10,000 objects, including paintings, sculpture, photographs, and archival materials. Every museum boasts an individual mission statement—their purpose for keeping the lights on. However while the intent of the Smithsonian may not be identical to that of the Gibbes, all museums serve the same general purpose: to preserve the vestiges of human existence.

But what distinguishes an art museum from a museum of history? While history museums hold primary documents, ephemera, tangible facts if you will, art museums tell a different story. The Gibbes and institutions like it hold items that speak of our interpretation of a time in history, and how we use art as a tool to remember. As I have been learning more about the Civil War and exploring the collection catalogue, I have been thinking about how we have use photography for the sake of documentation. Dorothea Lange said it best, “Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.” As time continues to pass since “our nations bloodiest war,” the war between the states, our memory of it will continue to be informed by what was left behind.

[President Abraham Lincoln, Major General John A. McClernand and E. J. Allen (Allan Pinkerton)], 1862, by Alexander Gardner (American, Glasgow, Scotland 1821–1882 Washington, D.C.)

Alexander Gardner (American, Glasgow, Scotland 1821–1882 Washington, D.C.), [President Abraham Lincoln, Major General John A. McClernand (right), and E. J. Allen (Allan Pinkerton, left), Chief of the Secret Service of the United States, at Secret Service Department, Headquarters Army of the Potomac, near Antietam, Maryland], October 4, 1862; albumen silver print from glass negative; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005 (2005.100.1221), image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Photography and the American Civil War exhibition consists of more than two hundred photographs that document many different facets of wartime. Some are very gruesome (I had to quickly flip through the disturbing catalog pages with images of severed limbs and sick soldiers). Other documents are quite endearing and representative of Americans patriotism from the very beginning, even when the conflict was internal. I had to chuckle reading a little girl’s letter to President Lincoln instructing him to grow his beard so that he may have a better chance of winning the 1860 election. While the collection appears at first to reveal much of what happened during those years, there also seem to be holes in the story. The gruesomeness of some photographs leaves me wondering what they decided to censor from public view. Ultimately there is something for everyone, and I predict that the exhibit will draw in history buffs, art and photography lovers of all ages.

Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, 1863, by William Aiken Walker

Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, 1863, 1886, by William Aiken Walker (American, 1838 – 1921)

The exhibit is traveling all the way from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and I could not think of a more suitable place for it to be held than Charleston, home to several important sites of action in the Civil War. In fact, we recently passed the 150th anniversary of the Union’s attempt to storm Fort Sumter. I am a proud Charlestonian, and I am proud to have played a small part in the promotion of this highly anticipated exhibition.

Annie Stoppelbein, Public Programs & Marketing Intern and guest blogger

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