Archive for August, 2010

Revealing the Power of Portraits: Curators Select Works for Face Lift

Madame Pierre Gautreau, by Antonio de la Gandara, and
Mary Motte Alston, by Edward Savage.

Since late spring, the curatorial staff has been working diligently on plans for the upcoming exhibition Face Lift: The Power of Portraits. Portraiture is one of the oldest and most popular forms of artistic expression and anyone familiar with the Gibbes knows it boasts of a particularly prominent collection of American portraiture. For this exhibition we set out to delve deep into the collection with the goal to bring forth the magnificent stories our diverse portraiture collection tells.

Our quest to select works for the exhibition began with numerous, thorough searches of our collection database. The database contains vital information and an image for each of the nearly 7000 works of art housed at the Gibbes, and is a valuable tool for narrowing the field of options. Next, we decided to display works together in pairs. Juxtaposing the portraits in this way draws attention to notable elements such as pose, costume, size, and props that together, reveal a story beyond a portrait’s primary purpose of documenting the likeness of the individual. Naturally a number of striking portraits stood out as fascinating comparisons. For instance, we found the full-length portraits of Madame Pierre Gautreau, painted by Antonio de la Gandara in 1897, and Mary Motte Alston, painted by Edward Savage in 1792 captivating in both composition and in the context of the very different lives these two women led. In their portraits Mme. Gautreau and Mrs. Alston pose facing opposite directions, and the women themselves were indeed contrary to one another.

Virginie Avegno Gautreau is perhaps better known as the infamous “Madame X,” the name bestowed upon a portrait of her by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1884. Originally from Louisiana, Virginie Avegno and her family moved to Paris after the Civil War. There she married the wealthy Parisian, Pierre Gautreau. Well known for her startling beauty and expensive tastes, many Parisian women resented Mme. Gautreau’s social prominence. So, when Sargent’s scandalous portrait was exhibited, Paris’s social elite ostracized her. Mme. Gautreau spent the rest of her life trying to repair her reputation by commissioning new portraits of herself. Antonio de la Gandara often painted society women and celebrities, and was receptive to Mme. Gautreau’s needs. In his portrait, Mme. Gautreau conveys that age has brought her a modest elegance, but still she retains her supple physique, arresting profile, and coquettish nature.

In contrast, Mrs. Alston does not use a fan, strappy dress, or languid pose to draw attention to her beauty. Her priorities are markedly different from Mme. Gautreau’s conceptions of social status and physical appearance. Her defiantly assertive pose looking out from the canvas denotes this difference from Mme. Gautreau’s world of self-absorption. A Charleston native, Mrs. Alston was the wife of a wealthy plantation owner, yet she possessed deep compassion for the poor and sick surrounding her, and was known to frequently bring food and clothing to those in distress. She was also strong proponent of self-improvement through education and deplored idleness. In a letter to her fifteen year-old daughter, she wrote, “I have written to Mrs. Kershaw to give you $15 which I beg you not to spend foolishly and get four bonnets as you did last summer, but get useful things.” Imagine what Mrs. Alston would say to Mme. Gautreau!

Face Lift: The Power of Portraiture opens September 3 in the Main Gallery and will feature fourteen portrait pairings, each revealing portraiture’s remarkable capacity for storytelling. See a list of current and upcoming exhibitions.

Sara Arnold, Curator of Collections, Gibbes Museum of Art

Back to School Tools at the Gibbes

Students on a guided tour discuss the painting "April," by Childe Hassam.
Students on a guided tour discuss the painting April, by Childe Hassam.

School Year 2010–2011 is here! Most teachers and students return to their classrooms the week of August 16th for another year of enlightenment. The Gibbes Museum is excited, as always, to be a part of this learning process. There are many different ways schools can utilize the Gibbes’ resources to enhance their curriculum. My role, as Associate Curator of Education, is to plan programs that help our audience enjoy the museum and learn about art history. Let me share some insider tips on how to make the most of the Gibbes.

On, we provide a wealth of information in our Learn section. First, look over our tour information. We have guided tours for preschool through 12th grade classes that are aligned with the S.C. Learning Standards. And, there is always the option for a teacher to lead their own self-guided tour. We also bring art into the schools with the Gibbes Art to Go program. Through Gibbes Art to Go, any school or organization can submit a request for a teaching artist to lead a hands-on project in their school. Proposal forms can be downloaded online.

Teachers have their very own area on our website—Just for Educators—where they can build their own gallery of images using our collection and download our Educator’s Guide. We provide a bound copy of the guide to every teacher that brings their class for a tour, and it can also be mailed out or picked up at the museum. The Educator’s Guide is a great way for teachers to explore our collection before, after, or in place of a visit.  Of course we hope it will not be in place of a visit, but we know not every teacher will be able to visit the Gibbes this school year. Contact me at to request a guide. In addition to teaching tools, information about the Mary Whyte Art Educator Award is also available in Just for Educators. The annual award recognizes a high school art teacher in the tri-county Charleston area who has demonstrated superior commitment to their students and to their craft. I encourage you to nominate yourself or a deserving art educator today!

One of the final stops on the website under Learn is the Gibbes Interactions features. Select a signature work of art from the Gibbes collection, and enjoy an in-depth exploration of the artists, subjects, and styles that have shaped the art of Charleston and the south. You can display Interactions on your Smart Board and have fun!

Remember, we are your visual arts museum. Come for a visit whether it is in-person or virtually. Welcome Back to School!

Rebecca Sailor, Associate Curator of Education, Gibbes Museum of Art

Above: Photo by Scott Henderson

Revisiting The Charleston Story: New Works on View

<em>Untitled</em>, by Nell Choate Shute
Untitled, ca. 1940s-50s, by Nell Choate Shute (American, 1898–1966), 2010.005.0002B

Have you visited the Gibbes lately? If so, you may notice new faces in the building. Yes, we do have a few new staff members, but I am referring to the new paintings and works on paper on display in The Charleston Story. Ok, they are not really new in the sense that they were just created—although a few of the works are new acquisitions—but many of these pieces have been in storage for a while so they are new to our visitors. Confused yet?

Let’s start over. Each January and July we rotate objects on display in The Charleston Story, a fabulous exhibition that showcases the range and depth of the Gibbes permanent collection. The Charleston Story is installed in nine different galleries throughout the museum and currently includes over 150 works of art. However, this is only a small fraction of the Gibbes permanent collection which contains over 1500 paintings and miniature portraits and 4000 works of art on paper! Objects are rotated in and out of the ongoing exhibition so we can share as many works as possible with our visitors. Object changes also serve a conservation purpose. Over time, all objects can change or deteriorate as a result of environmental conditions. The major environmental factors that affect the long-term preservation of objects are light, relative humidity, and temperature. Works on paper are especially susceptible to light so we store them in cool, dark containers after six months on display. How an object is handled, displayed, and stored can mean the difference between preserving it for many years or for only a short time.

Rotating objects in The Charleston Story is a group effort and requires months of pre-planning. Sara Arnold, our Curator of Collections, chooses the objects for the exhibition. She must consider how a particular piece will fit the theme of each section as well as how it will fit visually with other works in the gallery. Sara also researches each object and writes descriptions about the artist or subject matter—no small task! Once Sara selects the objects for the rotation, I enter the picture. As Director of Collections Administration, one of my responsibilities is to oversee the movement of artwork within the building. I identify an object’s storage location, remove the object from storage, and assess its overall condition. Greg Jenkins, the museum’s preparator, then completes any matting and framing required for exhibition.

Objects Being Prepared for Installation
Objects are pulled from storage and prepared for installation.

After works are chosen, conditioned, and prepared for view, we set an installation schedule. Changing out The Charleston Story can be logistically complicated due to the fact that it spans multiple galleries. For the safety of the objects, we try to complete most art installation on Mondays when the museum is closed to the public. However, try as we might, reinstallation of galleries almost always takes longer than a day, and sometimes a week! The process of hanging art work is interesting (lots of math) but not always pretty (think hammers, drills, tape measures, tool carts, and labels). If you visit the Gibbes in January or July you may see art moving around the building or encounter a roped off gallery where we are working diligently to finish the switch. We love an audience and encourage questions from our visitors.

On installation days, Greg and I first remove works from exhibit and return them safely to storage. Next, the remaining works are taken down in preparation for a new arrangement. When the gallery walls are clear, the new additions are brought into the space. We position them around the room on carpet squares or a set of “bumpers,” which are special carpeted planks that protect ornate frames. At this point, Sara is back on the scene to determine how best to arrange the pieces within the gallery, and Greg begins to install. Once the art is on the wall, he hangs the labels, removes his tools, resets the lights, and… voila, The “new” Charleston Story. The final step includes checking the condition of works removed from exhibition and updating the object locations in our collections database.

Installation in Progress
Preparator Greg Jenkins reinstalling a wall in Gallery G.

So there you have it—another behind-the-scenes look at what your friendly museum staff does with their time. Come see what’s new—I’m off to the next project!

Zinnia Willits, Director of Collections Administration, Gibbes Museum of Art

Tour highlights of the Gibbes’ collection with one of our interactive online features.

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Curatorial Perspective: An Upcoming Exhibition Takes Shape

Manifest, 2010, by Stacy Lynn Waddell

Manifest, 2010, by Stacy Lynn Waddell (American, b. 1966)

Over the next few weeks, the Gibbes collections and curatorial staff will be hard at work in preparation for the opening of Stacy Lynn Waddell: The Evidence of Things Unseen. On view September 3 – December 5, 2010, this exhibition will feature recent work by contemporary artist Stacy Lynn Waddell in her first solo museum exhibition. Waddell’s work is a fascinating blend of painting, drawing, sculpture, collage, and installation created with her innovative technique of burning, singeing, and branding paper and canvas.

Organizing an exhibition such as this is no easy task. It is truly a team effort that requires close to two years of planning. This particular exhibition began with a series of conversations between me and the artist. Together, we hatched a plan for the overall scope of the exhibition and important details such as the dates, gallery location, number of works, etc. As luck would have it, the Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro was also interested in hosting an exhibition of Waddell’s work, and a collaboration was born.

To prepare for the exhibition, I took two trips to Durham, NC to visit Stacy in her studio, along with Xandra Eden, the Curator of Exhibitions at the Weatherspoon. Studio visits are one of the best parts of my job. I get to see artwork first hand while building a relationship with the artist—important things when curating a contemporary exhibition. During our visits with Stacy, our main objective was to select the objects for the exhibition. It was important for Stacy, Xandra, and I to meet as a group and develop an object list that worked for both venues and also matched Stacy’s vision for the show.

But selecting the works in only half the story. Once the object list is finalized we need to figure out how to pack the works, ship them to the museum, and install them in the gallery. This requires hard work and ingenuity on the part of our Director of Collections Administration, Zinnia Willits, and our Director of Operations and Preparator, Greg Jenkins. Greg and Zinnia are our resident experts on all things related to art handling, movement, and installation. In the meantime, I am busy writing an essay for the exhibition brochure, preparing label copy and text panels, planning the exhibition layout, and managing all other details of the project. Did I book Stacy a hotel room for the exhibition opening? Do we have high resolution images for our marketing materials? These are the things that pop into my head at 3 o’clock in the morning…

Many, many emails and phone calls later, we are in the home stretch. I have to say, I am really looking forward to seeing this exhibition on the gallery walls, and I know Stacy is too. Come see the final results—the exhibition opens on Friday, September 3—it should be a good time.

—Pam Wall, Curator of Exhibitions, Gibbes Museum of Art