Putting Out the Welcome Mat
It is just across the river. a brief train ride from Manhattan and an easy stroll brings you to the Newark (New Jersey) Museum. I have been there on numerous occasions to see both special exhibitions and the ever-expanding permanent collections. this time, my visit was for an exhibition that inaugurates the museum’s new special exhibition galleries, part of a campaign to both re-organize and re-imagine this jewel like institution. I also went to see the recently-retired chief curator, Ulysses Grant Dietz, who has spent his entire and enormously productive professional career at this one institution. During his 37-year tenure, first as curator of decorative arts and subsequently serving as chief curator, Dietz has produced more than 113 exhibitions and installations, 13 books and dozens of scholarly articles and reviews. He has continued to explore new territory and to re-think the museum’s goals and the ways the visitor will profit from their experience.
The paintings exhibition The Rockies and The Alps: Bierstadt, Calame, and the Romance of the Mountains, co-curated by Katherine Manthorne and Tricia Laughlin Bloom, pairs the Swiss landscapist Alexandre Calame (1810-1864), known principally for his Alpine works, with Albert Bierstadt
(1830-1902), the German-american painter whose American landscapes were seminal in his adopted country’s familiarization with the Western frontier. This exhibition is another example of the expanding view of American art as interdependent with
Europe, currently seen in exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum and Milwaukee Art Museum and discussed in my last column. It also underscores the transition of Newark’s presentation of its signature American paintings collection from “Picturing America,” to the more engaging and exploratory notion of “seeing America,” from multiple perspectives. The current exhibition provides evidence of how the painter’s discovery and exploration of remote mountainscapes is mirrored by scientific expeditions, extensive record keeping, as well as amateur and professional specimen gathering. It also suggests the significant documentary possibilities of the then recently developed (1839) photographic processes. The rapid expansion of reproductive technology also served to lure amateur explorers and tourists into previously untraveled areas in search of novel and exhilarating experiences.the inclusion of Voyages dans les Alpes, (1834) which published the late-18th century explorations of the Swiss geologist Horace-bénédict de Saussure, is complemented by a popular travel book by Karl Baedeker who began producing his worldwide guides in 1827.Travel lectures became standard fare for popular presentation especially after the development of the magic lantern projections of glass plate slides. And it is worth remembering that Mark Twain’s first successful bestselling book was a travel chronicle Innocents Abroad (1868).
Though Bierstadt painted his share of
European landscape, especially during his student years (1853-1857) in Dusseldorf, Germany, he early on discovered the visual glories of the American West, first when he accompanied the Lander surveying expedition in 1859, and then in 1863 when he travelled to Yosemite. Once back in his Newyork studio, he fabricated paintings based on the enormous volume of color studies and drawings he had made on site. It is interesting to note that while Calame’s Alpine scenes were regularly taken from within the rocky landscape, often focusing on dramatic and dizzying heights, dark and looming prospects and rushing river torrents, Bierstadt’s American views are more scenic. The mountains rise in the distance, sharply detailed and wondrous without being threatening.the paintings are rhapsodic and admiring but are also as detailed and documentary as they are dramatic.the passion for detail, something he shared with his most significant competitor, Frederic Church, was driven by both religious thinking that found evidence of the divine in the natural world, and the influence of scientific inquiry known through the explorations and publications of the early-19th century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. In Bierstadt’s work, the act of recording, as with the documentation of the expedition he had joined, was also an act of declaring ownership.there was a national imperative to truly stake a claim on its western dominions.
This show provides a poignant reminder of how daunting travel was before the convenience of modern transportation technology. (It should also serve as a rebuke to those who find the quick trip to Newark inconvenient.) Manhattanites are certainly spoiled by their own artistic riches and a certain “we have it all” attitude.
But, as the recent reconfiguration of the museum and the current exhibition make clear, there is much to see in Newark that is both visually engaging and thoughtfully presented with the public in mind and arranged differently from the traditional installations at the Met and elsewhere. Simply put, you can learn a great deal more about things you thought you knew.what is equally important is that this attitude is not new. It was ingrained in the very foundations of the institution. One might actually say that the Newark Museum was born in the Rockies in the late 19th century,or at least on the mile-high plain that abuts them.the Denver Public Library provided the training ground for John Cotton Dana (1856-1929), its first librarian, who served from 1889 to 1898. Dana, a native of Woodstock,vermont, with deep family roots in New England, abandoned a legal career to become a pioneer of sorts. Denver was already an established city when Dana took charge of the library, but it was in configuring it as a service oriented and user-friendly institution that he honed his thinking about the role of such institutions and, by extension, of American museums. In shaping the library and its programs, he sought to encourage curiosity and selfreliance through the innovation of open stacks. He envisioned the library as an active centerpiece for the community at large rather than the resort of the entitled few. He expanded his audience with an area devoted to children’s literature and sought an atmosphere of open inquiry rather than the hushed solemnity that engendered an intimidating environment.
Afterward, in a brief career in Springfield, Massachusetts, as in Denver, he inaugurated an open plan for the library. “Let the shelves be open, and the public admitted to them, and let the open shelves strike the keynote of the whole administration.the whole library should be permeated with a cheerful and accommodating atmosphere.”
He brought this strategy with him to Newark, a vibrant industrial city with diverse manufacturing and commercial activities and an emerging metropolitan consciousness.as in many expanding urban centers, civic leaders envisioned the cultural features considered requisite emblems of metropolitan life. For Dana, that meant expanding the purview of the library to include exhibition rooms that would ultimately form the basis of a public art
museum.and for him, public meant exactly that. At the library, he created a section of foreign language books, recognizing the presence and needs of immigrant settlers who provided the industrial workforce.at the other end of the spectrum, he established the first-ever business branch of any library. His innovations did much to transform the library world and he brought the same kind of novel thinking when he finally succeeded, in 1909, in creating in the library a multipurpose museum “for the reception and exhibition of articles of art, science, history and technology, and for the encouragement of the study of the arts and sciences.” (The Newark Museum today includes a planetarium and natural science section in addition to its art collections.) It was with the founding in 1870 of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan Museum in New York that the fever for art museums began in earnest in America. In the ensuing decades. a host of other cities established art museums. Most initially saw them as educational institutions since the availability of art collections was limited and the chance of acquiring great masterworks seemed an impossibility. But with the enormous concentration of private capital amassed towards the end of the century, that changed dramatically. Art collections flowed into the hands of the newly rich who stewarded their museums toward the same ambitious goals. The precious replaced the practical and with the location of most civic museums in parks that were inconveniently located for access by the public, museums seemed destined to serve only an enfranchised class.
Dana would have none of it. He railed against the masterwork mentality and urged the location of museums in the center of town, not in remote park-like settings. Instead of Old Masters, kept secure in palatial rooms that spoke of class and exclusion, he insisted that museums be modern and wide-ranging in their collections, and contemporary in their design. More importantly, he saw all works created by individuals as art, allowing no distinction between painting, pottery, meta work or any of the other handcrafts—including even machine-made industrial arts.
The museum remained in the Newark library until its own purpose-built modern building opened in 1926, only three years before Dana’s death. From its earliest days in the library, it was home to transformative displays including an exhibition of 20 contemporary american artists in 1909, and in 1913 a rare one-man exhibition of work by the New Jersey modernist Max Weber. Dana felt American art should be a focus of the museum and while contemporary abstract painting eluded him personally, he endorsed it as a part of the museum’s mission to expose his audience to a range of human expressions. Not surprising then that he also promoted native art from a variety of cultures including African art and Chinese, Japanese and the previously unheralded tibetan art, still a major feature of the Newark collection. Arts previously considered the province of ethnographers came under his lens and were presented side by side with more traditional areas of art museum surveys.
Moreover, his intent to improve the taste of ordinary citizens led to the assembling of an exhibition of everyday objects of good design that were chosen at local department stores for prices from 10 cents to a dollar. when he mounted an exhibition of New Jersey clay products in 1915, he included everything from Lenox china to plumbing fixtures, all of which were important products of New Jersey studios and workshops. He exhibited modern photography in 1911 and organized a circulating exhibition of Modern German Applied Arts, a subject rejected by the Metropolitan as being too commercial. And while he didn’t live to see it, in 1930 Newark mounted the first wide-ranging survey of American folk art in a museum context.
Education and the enrichment of ordinary lives were Dana’s motivating ideals and, in recent decades, that mission has been energized by both the administration and the curatorial staffs.
A shining star in this journey has been Ulysses Grant Dietz.
It would not have been surprising if Ulysses accepted the curatorship of decorative arts shortly after graduating from the Winterthur program with the notion that it would be a stepping stone. Immediate predecessors Berrytracy and J. Stewart Johnson had moved on to grander roles at the Metropolitan and Brooklyn museums. Ambition might have been stimulated by Ulysses own heritage that included relationship with the Dupont’s of Winterthur and the Root family of upstate New York, the region of his own childhood. Edward Wales Root (son of prominent statesman and Nobel Prize laureate Elihu Root) who assembled one of the most important early collections of American modernist art from Prendergast to Pollock was his great uncle. A public service imperative and professional aspiration may equally trace to the career of his namesake and great-great grandfather Ulysses S. Grant. But he was stimulated by Newark’s particular agenda. By his own reckoning, Ulysses backed into a new way of looking at the curator’s role when, a decade into his tenure in Newark, he was charged with the renovation/ restoration of the 1885 Ballantine House. This downtown mansion of Newark beer baron, John Holme Ballantine, abutted the museum building and had long been utilized in part as office space.a museum expansion facilitated office relocation and the potential conversion of the second floor of the Ballantine House into much needed gallery space for the decorative arts.the question of why the workingclass community of Newark would find anything of interest in the fussy Gilded Age house interiors of a nouveau riche 19th century businessman became a defining question for Ulysses.with the input of local educators as well as material culture colleagues, the project was approached from the back door rather than the front.that was not only the access route from the museum but, more importantly, the way most tradesmen and servants would have encountered the house originally.avoiding the “decorative arts rut,” the installation was aided programmatically by a grant from the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Foundation whose “Collections Accessibility Initiative” was aimed at underserved audiences and required recipients to “utilize collections in a way that would forever change the way you operate as a museum.”the Ballantine House was thus repositioned not as a house but as home, with all the layers of function, service and social history integral to the story. Instead of considering the contents as statements of taste, they were used to explore what they could tell about the people who owned them.
Not that Ulysses has turned his back on luxury objects.there were major lacunae in the museum’s collection including areas that were significant products of New Jersey: silver and jewelry, both of which Dana, with proletarian instinct, had largely ignored. Newark was the major producer of gold jewelry in America and the silver workshops of Tiffany & Co. were based nearby.
While Ulysses has made wide-ranging and significant acquisitions in many areas of crafts and cultural diversity, he has also pursued a layered approach in presenting the material. By juxtaposition and inclusiveness, his installations plumb meaning, function and use, not simply aesthetic excellence. Jewelry cases reflect the imagination and creativity of the artist-craftsman, focusing on the materials used—from the types of stones and metals to the use of glass, enamel and plastic. The silver cases focus not on maker and period but on the diverse functions of silver from religious and ceremonial to daily use and its democratization through plating and other techniques that made it more universally affordable. I believe Dana would have joined us in applauding Ulysses’ accomplishments.
While his retirement has closed a door on a productive and distinguished career, his final project was to oversee the reopening of the museum’s front door, once again announcing to the community that they are welcomed and invited to come in off the street rather than, as many museums have more recently done by making the principal access from the parking lot.
The entry installations introduce the visitor the soul of the institution.they are first greeted by a joyous and colorful mural by Nigerian born painter Odili Donald Odita. Reflecting both his own background and the museum’s early commitment to African art, the mural equally alludes to traditional colors and patterns of his ancestral homeland. Beyond this vestibule is a light-filled courtyard which now features three specially commissioned works created by ceramicist Molly Hatch which also provide an index to the museum’s historical diversity.the artist arranged three monumental niches with handpainted plates whose patterns are derived from single objects in the collection. Representing the African collection, she utilized a pattern from an early-20th century wrapping cloth that Dana bought in 1928 from the Ivory Coast.a Qianlong velvet throne carpet with an asymmetrical design of cranes and peonies reflects the strength of the Asian art collections, and a Bergen County, New Jersey, jacquard coverlet provided the motif for the third panel installation. These underscore the Newark Museums’ dual commitment to the historic and the contemporary. According to Dana,“a good museum attracts, entertains, arouses curiosity, leads to questioning, and thus promotes learning.” Ulysses Grant Dietz has continued to pursue that ideal and thus set an enviable role model for the future.
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), View in the Yosemite, 1864. Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 25¼ x 19 in. Collection of Algernon A. Phillips, MD, Orange, NJ.
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Landscape Study: Estes Park, Colorado, Morning, ca. 1860. Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 12¾ x 8¾ in. Collection of Amy C. Liss.
The Ballantine House library at the Newark Museum.
The Henry Blank “Butterfly Lady” brooch, 1904, which served as the cover image of the 1997 book and exhibition The Glitter & The Gold: Fashioning America’s Jewelry.
Ulysses Grant Dietz, recently retired chief curator of the Newark Museum.