Collecting history: Clark opens exhibit of early American art and decor

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Less than two years after more than doubling its gallery space as part of an ambitious campus expansion and renewal effort, the Clark isn't quite done opening new gallery space.

The art and educational institute on Sunday will open the Henry Morris and Elizabeth H. Burrows Gallery in the the newly renovated Manton Research Center.

The gallery will house much of the Clark's early American collection of paintings and furniture, as well as its Burrows collection of early American silver, some created by Paul Revere Jr. and his father in the 1700s.

Designed by Selldorf Architects, the 3,275-square-foot gallery includes new exhibition cases and an improved layout for viewing the Clark's important collection of colonial to early 19th century American art.

As a part of opening day, Kathleen Morris, director of exhibitions and curator of decorative arts for the Clark, and curatorial research associate Alexis Goodin will present an opening lecture on the new gallery at 11:30 a.m.

The gallery was previously used as special exhibition space on the upper level of the Manton Research Center. It features more than 300 objects, many which haven't been seen in public since 2012, and some of which have never been exhibited.

Highlights include an iconic portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, a scaled sugar bowl and cover made circa 1795 by Paul Revere Jr.; and a Sheraton-style secretary from the early 1800s attributed to Nehemiah Adams.

The gallery also includes a study center with additional displays of silver, a computer station, and a small library of books on American silver and furniture, for visitors to further their study of the works on view.

"With the leadership of Selldorf Architects, we have converted our former temporary exhibition space into a suite of permanent collection galleries," Morris said. "It is exciting to see these objects, many of which were formerly in storage due to lack of space, assembled in such a warm and welcoming environment."

In a walk through the gallery Thursday, with labels being installed, Morris shared her knowledge about the objects and their histories, including a tale of a man awarded an engraved silver cup for saving the lives of passengers from a sinking vessel, and who years later was convicted of piracy. The silver cup is on display.

Very little of the Clark's early American collection was acquired by the Clark's founders. It has been developed over time through gifts, including the 2003 Burrows bequest of more than 272 pieces of American silver.

"The Clark's collection of American decorative arts has been assembled largely through generous donations of important collections," said Olivier Meslay, director of the Clark. "We are so pleased to be able to honor the Burrowses, whose keen eyes and collecting acumen built an exemplary collection, and are indebted to them for their generosity in making such an important gift to the Clark. This new gallery, named in their honor, allows us to provide well-deserved prominence to this lesser-known facet of our collection."

In 2001, 30 pieces of colonial and Federal furniture and small decorative arts assembled by distinguished collector George Cluett were received through a bequest from his daughter, Florence Cluett Chambers.

In 2010 and 2013, Phoebe Prime Swain donated 28 pieces of Chinese export porcelain from the George Washington Memorial Service, each decorated with a memorial to the first president. While several museums own one or two pieces from this noted service, the Clark now has the largest holding of any public institution, featuring platters, bowls, sauceboats and custard cups.

The reinstallation project included extensive object research conducted by Morris and Goodin. This research revealed important information about the collections. For example, a looking glass purchased by Cluett, thought to be a rare example from New York, was actually made in Bremen, Germany. Most likely made for the American market, the looking glass was the subject of an intensive research and conservation project in 2015.

The items housed in the Burrows gallery reflect how early American artists and craftsmen created a new artistic identity for the fledgling nation through the creation of beautiful and functional objects. Their designs demonstrate a knowledge and appreciation of luxury objects being made at the time in Europe, especially in England, but also show a tendency toward a greater simplicity in form and decoration.

Reach staff writer Scott Stafford at 413-496-6301.


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