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American art gets a higher profile in U.S. museums

The Huntington, the Met and museums in Boston, Kansas City and Detroit are showcasing stateside talent with revamped exhibit spaces.

May 30, 2009|Suzanne Muchnic

At the Met, founded in 1870, the latest transformation of the American Wing has brought a display of sculpture, mosaics and stained glass in the luminous courtyard; an installation of 1,000 pieces of ceramics, glass, silver and pewter in balcony galleries; and a glass elevator that transports visitors to reconfigured period rooms.

At the 90-year-old Huntington, American art is relatively new. Founder Henry E. Huntington and his wife, Arabella, acquired a few American paintings along with their British portraits. But the institution didn't begin collecting American art until 1979, when it received a gift of 50 paintings from Virginia Steele Scott.

Today, the collection includes 9,400 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, furniture and other decorative arts. Fifteen galleries in the complex offer chronological and thematic displays of fine and decorative arts from the 17th through the mid-20th century.

The new showcase, a $1.6-million project designed to give the Huntington's rapidly growing American art collection more space and visibility, combines the original, 1984 American gallery with the Lois and Robert F. Erburu Gallery, a streamlined, 4-year-old structure by Los Angeles architect Frederick Fisher.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum opened in 1933, thanks to William Rockhill Nelson, a civic leader and admirer of European art who left money to buy a collection, and Mary McAfee Atkins, whose bequest paid for the building. Over the years, the museum has compiled one of the nation's strongest American collections, including paintings by Winslow Homer, Thomas Cole, John Singer Sargent and Raphaelle Peale and furniture by leading designers.

The museum's expansion provides a popular 9,000-square-foot sequence of galleries that offers historical and social narratives, curator Margaret C. Conrads says: "It's the American experience."

The current American experience is colored by economic stress.

As Heckscher observes: "It's wonderful that all these museums' initiatives, these new American displays, are getting done or have been done when money was plentiful enough to do it. Going forward, it will be much more difficult to begin any such projects, at least in the immediate future."


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