Major Gift of Art Pottery to Adorn Met’s Restyled American Wing

See Below for Press Release from the Met.


By CAROL VOGEL
Published: January 14, 2009 - NY Times

The collector Robert A. Ellison Jr. at his home in Greenwich Village with some of the pottery by American masters that he is donating to the Metropolitan Museum.

muse.2.190In the early 1960s, when he moved to New York from Fort Worth to pursue a career as a painter, Robert A. Ellison Jr. spent much of his time exploring the city, perusing antiques stores, thrift shops and flea markets for things, he said, “they didn’t have in Texas.”

One of his earliest purchases was a white crackled-glaze plate decorated with blue rabbits that he later learned was made around 1900 in Dedham, Mass. “The design was strong, not fussy,” Mr. Ellison, 76, said in an interview.

His rambles soon extended to New England, where he discovered many other kinds of pottery. “I didn’t know what any of it was,” he said. “It wasn’t in books. I just saw it, liked it and bought it. Prices were low.”

Mr. Ellison has since amassed hundreds of examples of American and European ceramics, from the theatrical creations of George E. Ohr, the self-styled Mad Potter of Biloxi, Miss., to the matte-green Arts and Crafts pieces of William H. Grueby.

Cramped for space in his Village apartment, he has crowded his treasures into cabinets, crammed them atop shelves and packed them away in closets. And while he insists that he doesn’t think of himself as a philanthropist, he now plans to donate 250 American pieces from his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dating from 1876 through 1956, the works include examples by the greatest late-19th and early-20th-century American potters, from Ohr to Grueby to masters of the Newcomb and Rookwood pottery studios. Experts familiar with the collection say it is worth $15 million to $20 million. It will be displayed at the Met on a new mezzanine level of the Charles Engelhard Court, starting on May 19, when the second phase of the renovation of the American Wing is completed.

The gift, which the board voted to accept on Tuesday evening, is a well-timed one for the Met. “It’s the perfect synergy between a collector’s wishes and the museum’s ability to honor them,” said Morrison H. Heckscher, chairman of the museum’s American Wing.

As a condition of the gift, Mr. Ellison wanted his collection to be shown by itself at first and to have the museum prepare a book about it. The new glass-fronted mezzanine, below the current walkway against the court’s west wall, was purposely designed for decorative objects like Mr. Ellison’s that can withstand the sunlight that bathes the space through windows overlooking Central Park.

The renovated wing will include 53 glass cases, Mr. Heckscher said, about 20 more for decorative objects than it had in the past, 13 of them on the new mezzanine. Much of the space within the wing has been reconfigured through the addition of glass walls, a new glass elevator and a glass staircase in the lofty Engelhard Court. The museum’s 12 historic American interiors are being relocated chronologically within the wing, from Colonial times to a design environment by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Mr. Ellison’s gift fills a significant gap in the Met, whose holdings of American art pottery had been spotty. “It was adequate,” admitted Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, the museum’s curator of American decorative arts. “But this collection transforms it. Now it will be extraordinary.”

muse.3.190Ms. Frelinghuysen has long been familiar with Mr. Ellison’s ceramics. She first met him when she was organizing “In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Esthetic Movement,” a 1986 show to which he was an important lender. “There are a couple of serious collectors of art pottery, but no more than a handful,” she said. “And this collection is arguably one of the best.

David Rago, a New Jersey dealer and auctioneer who specializes in 20th-century decorative arts and knows Mr. Ellison’s collection, said it was particularly unusual because he started buying masters like Ohr before they became fashionable. “He was there early on,” Mr. Rago said. “He had the taste, the eye and the drive.”

Among the highlights in the gift are a group of 16 exotic works by Ohr, a picaresque figure who died in 1918 and about whom Mr. Ellison wrote a book published in 2006. (He was a co-author of a 1989 book on Ohr.)

In the 1970s he bought some pieces that had been purchased directly from the artist’s studio. “I was hooked,” he said. “After that I would look for interesting pieces wherever I could find them. I love their quirkiness, their abstract forms.”

Asked why he was drawn so intensely to pottery, of all art forms, Mr. Ellison said, “I can’t answer that question.” He recalled that his early purchase of the white rabbit plate led him to the work of Hugh Cornwall Robertson, the Massachusetts founder of Dedham Pottery, whose heavy drip vases with colorful, lavalike glazes reminded him of the thick paint applied by Abstract Expressionist artists.

“The designs and shapes I discovered were endlessly fascinating,” he said.

In 1985 Mr. Ellison abandoned his own painting to write about ceramics, but he never stopped collecting. He now owns pieces by every major American potter, some of them well known and others quite obscure. The objects headed to the Met range from vessels that are only a few inches tall to plaques, lamps and vases exceeding two feet. In addition to well-known potters, the collection also includes examples by 20th-century artists like Henry Varnum Poor, Hunt Diederich and Peter Voulkos who distinguished themselves in other mediums as well.

Mr. Ellison says he has more or less reached the end of his collecting career. “I may buy something, but only if I haven’t seen it before,” he said. “But I’m going to try not to.”

Robert A. Ellison Jr.’s pottery collection will be unveiled on May 19 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; metmuseum.org.

 

PRESS RELEASE


New American Wing Galleries Open May 19

* Reconfigured Charles Engelhard Court, Balcony Galleries, and Historic Rooms Represent Second Part of Multi-Year Construction Project
* Opening: May 19, 2009

When The Charles Engelhard Court—the grand, light-filled pavilion that has long served as the formal entrance to The Metropolitan Museum of Art's American Wing—reopens this spring after two years of construction and renovation, the Museum's unparalleled collections of American ceramics, sculpture, stained glass, architectural elements, silver, pewter, glass, and jewelry will finally be seen in all their glory. So, too, will its early American rooms—12 of the Met's historic interiors, mostly from the colonial period, located on three floors of the wing's historic core—that have been reordered, renovated, and reinterpreted. The popular American Wing Café will also reopen in its previous location on the park side of the court. The opening of the galleries marks the completion of the second part (begun in May 2007) of a project to reconfigure, renovate, or upgrade nearly every section of The American Wing by 2011.

Morrison H. Heckscher, the Lawrence A. Fleischman Chairman of The American Wing, described the project as "architecture in the cause of art." He continued: "The goal of the comprehensive renovation of The American Wing is to present the Museum's superlative collections in the clearest and most logical, as well as most beautiful, manner possible. Toward that end, we have called upon the building itself—in the use of clear glass for walls and parapets and even a new public elevator, for example—to provide visual access to all facets of the collections."

The Charles Engelhard Court
Upon entering The Charles Engelhard Court, visitors will immediately encounter a new display of some 60 examples of large-scale sculpture, mosaics, stained glass, and architectural elements. The monumental sculpture collection will be installed on a new main-floor level—near the stunning loggia designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany for the main entrance of Laurelton Hall (about 1905), his Oyster Bay, Long Island, residence—as well as on a lower level in front of the façade of Martin E. Thompson's Branch Bank of the United States (1822–24), originally located at 15 1/2 Wall Street in New York City. Included will be marble and bronze figurative works by such American master sculptors as Hiram Powers (1805–1873), Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907), Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (1880–1980), and Paul Manship (1885–1966). These familiar works have been reinstalled in new groupings to encourage aesthetic and thematic comparisons and allow viewers unprecedented up-close access. Notable is the relocation of the marble Milmore and Melvin memorials by Daniel Chester French (1850–1931) from the balcony to the first floor, where they can be appreciated in proximity to other superlative American Beaux-Arts sculptures. The popular pool feature has been redesigned to showcase two bronze fountains by Frederick William MacMonnies (1863–1937) and Janet Scudder (1869–1940) that are piped to spout water. John La Farge's ambitious allegorical Welcome Window (1908–9)—a virtuosic work in stained glass—will be installed next to Saint-Gaudens's marble-and-mosaic tour de force Vanderbilt Mantelpiece (1881–83). American neoclassical marbles of the mid-19th century will return to the courtyard, displayed in a distinct group between a new seating area and the Branch Bank façade.

Balcony Galleries
The American Wing's outstanding collections of ceramics, glass, silver, and pewter will be installed in the balcony galleries in an integrated chronological sequence, beginning with the colonial period on the east side and continuing into the 20th century on the west, overlooking Central Park. Individual cases will be arranged by medium or theme. Among the highlights of the silver display will be the work of such familiar names as Paul Revere, Jr., and Tiffany & Company. A newly constructed mezzanine-level balcony, accessible via a staircase in the northwest corner, will be devoted almost entirely to the display of a major recent acquisition—250 superb examples of American art pottery crafted between 1876 and 1956, a promised gift of Robert A. Ellison Jr.—that has never before been publicly seen. Stained-glass windows of the same period, by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), William Gray Purcell (1880–1965) and George Grant Elmslie (1869–1952), and George Washington Maher (1864–1926) that incorporate large amounts of clear glass will also be installed nearby, with Central Park visible through them.

Additional stunning examples of mid-19th-century ecclesiastical stained-glass windows, installed on the upper balcony to allow for close examination by visitors, will be visible from the courtyard, approximating their original vantage points. Work by every major designer of American stained glass will be represented in this display, the most comprehensive presentation in any American museum.

In all, nearly 1,000 works of art will be exhibited, including two new cases devoted entirely to American jewelry, ranging from early 18th-century mourning rings to surprising works of the Arts & Crafts period. From the courtyard below, the new glass-fronted balconies will reveal a panoply of color, form, and brilliance.

Period Rooms
The American Wing's 20 period rooms—19 of which return to view this spring— provide an unparalleled view of American domestic architecture and interior design over three centuries. Twelve rooms, dating from 1680 to 1810, have been newly renovated. The new installation also involved the removal of several interiors of minor interest, the relocation of two 18th-century rooms (the Verplanck Room, 1767, and the Marmion Room, 1756), and the addition of one new room—from the 1751 Daniel Peter Winne house near Albany, New York—which will be among the rooms opening this May. Built in the Dutch architectural tradition, the Winne Room will be used as a gallery for the display of the Museum's superb collection of furniture, silver, painted glass, and early portraiture made and used in the Dutch cultural areas of colonial New York.

With the renovation of the period rooms, visitors will be able to take a complete tour of American interiors and decorative arts in chronological sequence, from the 17th century (the Hart Room, 1680) to the 20th century (the Frank Lloyd Wright Room, 1912–14). A new glass elevator will carry visitors directly to the third floor, where the earliest rooms are located.

Recent research has led to changes in the appearance or interpretation of several of the rooms.

Touch-screen computers will allow the public to access many layers of information about each room, with sections on the objects that are displayed in it, the architecture of the house that the room came from, the original owners, and the history of the room and its installation after it came to the Metropolitan Museum.

The rooms on each floor surround three main decorative arts galleries, which will be newly installed with fine examples of American furniture and portraiture. These will include masterpieces by 18th-century cabinetmakers such as John Townsend of Newport and Thomas Affleck of Philadelphia, and 19th-century counterparts Duncan Phyfe and Charles Honoré Lannuier of New York.

The Erving and Joyce Wolf Gallery
Located within The American Wing, The Erving and Joyce Wolf Gallery is one of some 20 spaces at the Museum specifically designed to accommodate several special exhibitions per year. As part of this second phase of renovations, new wood floors and new lighting were installed in the space. The first exhibition to be housed in the renovated gallery is Augustus Saint-Gaudens, opening June 30, 2009.

The final phase of the American Wing renovation project will include the American paintings and sculpture galleries and the addition of eight completely new galleries for the display of the Museum's superb collection of this material.

Related Programs
A variety of education programs will be offered in conjunction with the New American Wing galleries opening this May, including: a May 30 afternoon of lectures in the Sunday at the Met program; gallery talks focusing on the variety of media and styles of art on view; family programs for children ages 5-12 and accompanying adult; and workshops for adults with visual impairments, as well as for families with children and adults with learning and/or developmental disabilities.

Special online features about The American Wing are available on the Museum's website (www.metmuseum.org).

Audio Guides for The American Wing will be available. Forty-two new audio messages, featuring conversations with American wing curators, will be produced about the works in the new galleries. The fee for rentals is $6 for members of the Museum, $7 for non-members, and $5 for children under 12.

The Audio Guide program is sponsored by Bloomberg.

The popular American Wing Café will reopen May 19 in The Charles Engelhard Court, serving traditional American favorites. Its hours are 11:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday; and 11:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Credits
The project is under the general direction of Morrison H. Heckscher, the Lawrence A. Fleischman Chairman of The American Wing, and Peter M. Kenny, Curator of American Decorative Arts and Administrator of The American Wing. The installations within The Charles Engelhard Court were coordinated by Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, the Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang Curator of American Decorative Arts, together with Beth Carver Wees, Curator of American Decorative Arts, and Thayer Tolles, Associate Curator of American Painting and Sculpture. The period room installations were overseen by Amelia Peck, the Marica Vilcek Curator of American Decorative Arts. The overall project architect is Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates LLP; the Engelhard Court installations are by Michael Lapthorn, Exhibition Designer; the period room installations are by Stephen Saitas Design; and lighting is by Richard Renfro Associates.

Conservation of works of art in all media was carried out under the general direction of Lawrence Becker, Sherman Fairchild Conservator in Charge, with Linda Borsch and Marijn Manuels, Conservators, and Drew Anderson, Associate Conservator, all of the Department of Objects Conservation.

The Metropolitan Museum gratefully acknowledges the following lead contributors to the project: Margaret and Raymond J. Horowitz, Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang, Mr. and Mrs. Richard L. Chilton, Jr., The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, Juliana and Peter Terian, Jan and Warren Adelson, Max and Heidi Berry, Ambassador and Mrs. W. L. Lyons Brown, Joyce Berger Cowin, Jane and Maurice Cunniffe, Barbara G. Fleischman and Martha J. Fleischman, Peggy N. and Roger G. Gerry Charitable Trust, The Henry Luce Foundation, Elizabeth and Richard Miller, Oceanic Heritage Foundation, Doris and Stanley Tananbaum, and Barrie and Deedee Wigmore.

# # #

April 28, 2009