The Westmoreland Museum of American Art's 'draft' picks make debut
Art metaphors sometimes find their way into sports talk, but do sports metaphors transfer to the art world?
They did when representatives of The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg and the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford convened in 2014 to divide artworks bequeathed to the institutions by the late Tribune-Review publisher Richard M. Scaife.
“I talked about it like the NFL draft,” says Judy O'Toole, the Richard M. Scaife Director/CEO of The Westmoreland. “How do you strategically get the best player on your team, and how do you know what the motivation of your rival organization is? We were trying to get into the head of the people at the Brandywine, and wonder what they would want first.”
The top 25 rounds of that “draft” will be displayed May 12-Aug 5 in The Westmoreland in an exhibition titled “The Art of Giving: Selections From the Richard M. Scaife Bequest.”
Because Scaife left five John Kane paintings outright to The Westmoreland, his will stated that the Brandywine would pick first in a round-robin selection.
“We were two beloved institutions across the state that happened to have shared this deep connection with Dick Scaife,” O'Toole says. “He wanted to share his lifetime of collecting with us, but he unconsciously set up a competition.”
Scouting the opposition
O'Toole and chief curator Barbara Jones would have liked to scout the opposition beforehand, but that didn't work out.
“It was hard, because we don't know their collection that well. They don't have a catalog. They don't have their collection online,” O'Toole says. “We couldn't even sneak over there and take a look, because they had taken their entire collection down in order to facilitate a big exhibition.”
Turnabout was fair play at the round-robin.
“We were trying to not let them see what we had in our space, and they were over on their side with their computers. We had a wall between us,” Jones says. “It was only when we picked something that they wanted that (Thomas Padon, director of the Brandywine) actually groaned, and then we realized that we could lighten up.”
Tension dispelled, Padon asked if they all could deal face to face. Which they did.
“What began as a competition ended up as a really amicable, collegial sort of feeling between both organizations,” O'Toole says. “We realized we had sort of different priorities, and we weren't really in a fierce competition, we were in a really collaborative process of enhancing both collections.”
With their first picks, both museums took paintings from the Hudson River School, a mid-19th century group of landscape painters that O'Toole says is considered to be the first American school of painting.
The Brandywine chose a Martin Johnson Heade oil, “New Jersey Salt Marsh.”
“From the first moment when I had the opportunity to view Mr. Scaife's collection, the Heade was a standout,” Padon says. “Not only is it one of the East Coast marshland scenes for which Heade is celebrated, but the painting so clearly speaks to the artist's remarkable talent for capturing fleeting effects of atmosphere and light over an expansive landscape.
“When we examined the painting prior to the selection process, it was found to be in excellent condition, and it was one that I could envision perfectly complimenting the other 19th-century landscapes then in the museum's holdings, including those by the Hudson River School artists, to which Heade was loosely connected.”
The Westmoreland chose “Moonrise, Alexandria Bay,” a George Inness oil.
“It's really an iconic image for Inness' third and probably greatest period, where he evolved from fairly meticulous realism to this more spiritual, tonalism, where it's sort of the impression of moonrise, responding to Impressionism and other modernist movements,” O'Toole says. “The scale of it is impressive. It's a really important piece of Hudson River School painting, and that was a big gap in our collection.”
“We already have a small George Inness, and this one really has a lot of impact,” Jones says. “It's a really beautiful painting, it's a subject that is recognizable and that people relate to.”
“The two that were chosen first are really representative of how the choices fell. They're both Hudson River School paintings, they're both from an exceptional period in that artist's output, one is small and one is large,” O'Toole says.
Those sizes reflect practical considerations.
“The Brandywine's galleries are low-ceilinged and smaller because they're in an old mill,” she says. “One of the things we found out was that they were going for smaller paintings, while we — because we have this new, splendid, renovated space — were going for important larger paintings.”
Besides the top two, paintings featured in “The Art of Giving” won't be identified by where they were taken in the selection process.
“Doing the show opens us up to vulnerability with the public, because they're seeing what Brandywine got in their first 25 and what we got, and they'll be able to say, ‘Well, why didn't The Westmoreland go for that?'” O'Toole says.
“They did get a couple things that we really wanted,” Jones admits, but says she's confident the Brandywine folks would say the same thing.
“But we got 85 percent of what we wanted,” O'Toole adds.
“We got about a dozen really strong Hudson River School paintings, so it significantly increased our holdings in that area,” Jones says. Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shirley_trib.