Mystic Museum of Art has renovated galleries, opened a museum store, and will bring in a show of Norman Rockwell covers
The Mystic Museum of Art was closed for most of January, and for good reason. It was getting a bit of a makeover.
Its galleries were undergoing renovations. A new adopt-a-painting gallery was being created. And a museum store was being installed — the first store the site has had.
Last year, MMoA received a gift from an anonymous donor of $100,000, and that money made it possible to renovate the Davis and Halsey galleries.
V. Susan Fisher, who became MMoA’s executive director in December 2018, says, “They’re just such beautiful rooms. They were built with the intention of exhibiting fine art.”
The organization was founded as the Mystic Art Association in 1913, before expanding in 2004 as the Mystic Art Center and becoming the Mystic Museum of Art in 2016.
“It was originally an artists’ association, that’s true. The member artists did have the long-term intention of this being a museum. So they built these beautiful, grand galleries, and to be able to restore them is just great,” Fisher says.
At some point during the association’s history, someone put carpet on the gallery walls, which was a trend in the late 1970s in arts centers and commercial galleries. Doing that makes it quicker and easier to change out exhibitions; a viewer won’t notice nail holes in a wall covered with carpet.
“When the purpose of this organization was strictly to mount juried shows of artist members, there were 14, 15, 16 shows a year here. I mean, they were just clipping along,” Fisher says. “Since that is not the emphasis now, we need the focus to be on the curatorial intention, the enrichment to the community, which means a longer duration of the show, a chance to talk to people, bring them in, show them what we’re doing. And that means we want the galleries really to be a jewel box for presenting the artwork.”
Two or three years ago, the carpet was removed from the Leibig Gallery. This January’s work included removing the carpet from the Davis and Halsey galleries.
Afterward, the walls of the Davis Gallery — the first gallery a museum-goer walks into after coming through the front entrance — were painted a shade called tundra. It was selected because it is nearly perfectly balanced between warm and cool, Fisher says. She notes that if a painting that uses cool colors is exhibited on a cool-colored wall, it flattens it out. The same is true if the painting and the wall are both warm colors.
When the Davis Gallery had that runway of carpet around the middle of its walls, a viewer’s focus had been low and there hadn’t been the sense of how high the room actually is. Fisher says that when people came to the post-renovation opening night, they “said, ‘Oh, my God, when did you get those chandeliers?’ Well, these chandeliers have been here the whole time, it’s just that no one ever looked up.”
She adds that there was soot and dirt on the ceiling, as well as old light systems, sound systems, vents and heating ducts — “lots of stuff that was disused and cluttered up the ceiling.” They were removed, the gaps were filled in, and the ceiling was repaired, primed and repainted.
The floors were redone last year, and Fisher says, “What I’m looking for in the coming year is an art-hanging system, so we don’t actually have to put nails in the wall.”
The Halsey Gallery is located behind the Davis Gallery and had similar work done — walls stripped, ceiling cleaned, disused items like old vents removed, trim cleaned, and new sheetrock on walls. It was all repainted to emphasize the arched ceiling and fine details and to make abundant use of natural light.
Want to adopt a painting?
MMoA has also just established an “Adopt-a-Painting Gallery” in the small portico gallery at the back of the building overlooking the Mystic River.
Fisher says that some very important pieces in the museum’s collection “have suffered some harm over the 100 years of their lifespan.”
It’s not a function of anyone being careless, she says. “It’s just that by the time they get to us, some of the paintings have traveled a difficult road. They need some love.”
Someone, for instance, might find a painting in their grandmother’s closet and gift it to the museum. The closet might have had other objects that might have slightly damaged the painting.
With the goal of repairing some of those works, the museum has established the “Adopt-a-Painting Gallery.”
In the gallery, three pieces are featured from the collection that, Fisher notes, “have historical and aesthetic importance but that we can’t normally exhibit because they don’t present well, meaning they’re too fragile or too damaged to show. They wouldn’t be up to museum standards for exhibitions and/or are too fragile.”
There are big and small conservations jobs, so the cost could vary from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. Repairing a scratch in a painting could skew more toward the latter estimate, while a piece that suffers, for example, from something called foxing is a fairly simple process of repairing so would cost significantly less. Fisher explains, “Foxing is the phenomenon that happens with works on paper when they get damp. Little dark spots appear on the paper, especially if it’s not acid-free paper. Just soaking the drawing in an acid-balanced solution so that the foxing leeches out of the paper, that can be a fairly simple process.”
One of the works in the “Adopt-a-Painting Gallery” is “The Clearing” by Charles H. Davis, the Mystic Art Association founder who was a main figure in the Mystic art colony. This bequest of Margaret Howe Kitchings pictures a bucolic landscape and, above it, an epic sky swept by clouds. Including framing, it is 53” wide and 45.5” high.
The wall text accompanying the painting notes, “Artwork that is given to the Museum often needs a gentle cleaning and repair of scratches and abrasion. This is the case with Charles H. Davis’s ‘The Clearing,’ an important recent addition to the collection. For a painting of this size, a conservation-quality surface cleaning might cost $700, with an additional $300 to repair the scrape in the middle of the canvas. Additional treatment of areas showing paint loss could cost another $300-$400.”
If someone is interested in funding the conservation of an artwork, MMoA will acknowledge that on the label information in perpetuity.
People who are interested in “adopting a painting” should contact Fisher.
“I’m hoping that by just getting some public support for it, we can start putting works out on exhibition we haven’t been able to show for a while …,” she says. “I’m so grateful to people who will help us do this because museums are expensive. The curatorial standards that we’re held to are very, very high. For a museum to try to undertake conservation or acquisition of art out of its operating budget is almost impossible.”
Of gifts and artists
To reopen the Davis Gallery, Fisher says, “We thought it was appropriate to show the artist members as the first exhibition in the renovated gallery.”
So the annual “Members/Elected Artists exhibition” is on view through Feb. 29.
And “Gifts to the Museum,” showcasing new contributions to the museum, is featured through April 18 in the Leibig Gallery.
Fisher says that it’s not all that common for an arts center to have a permanent collection of historic artwork, but the Mystic site has always been a collecting institution, even when it was an art association and not a museum.
This particular exhibition features recent donations by Christopher Bates, James P. Queen, Bertram Bell, Virginia Wydler and Bonnie C. Wright.
“People who give us artwork just increase the heritage we can pass on. Because we’re not really owners, we’re stewards,” Fisher says.
Shopping at the museum
In the meantime, the Schuster Gallery at the back of the museum has been transformed into a museum store, with museum-branded items ranging from T-shirts to mugs.
Also on view and for sale in the store are paintings by locals artists and work by local artisans, along with prints and reproductions of pieces in the museum’s permanent collection. Carpet has been left on the walls there for the time being, since the art will rotate much faster and in greater quantity than in the other galleries.
Discussing everything going on at MMoA, Fisher says, “All of our work over the past year has been to position Mystic as a destination for cultural tourism and a source of transformative art experiences. Every new step we take is toward greater engagement by a broader public.”
IF YOU GO
What: "Gifts to the Museum" through April 18; "Members and Elected Artists Exhibition" through Feb. 29
Where: Mystic Museum of Art, 9 Water St., Mystic
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays through March 31; also open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays through Dec. 9
Closed: March 1-11, and April 19-May 1
Contact: (860) 536-7601, mysticmuseumofart.org
MMoA to host Norman Rockwell exhibition
The Mystic Museum of Art just announced an exhibition coup: this summer, it will feature a show on loan from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., showcasing 323 covers that Rockwell created for the Saturday Evening Post over the course of 47 years. It will be exhibited in the newly refurbished Davis Gallery and will possibly extend into the Halsey Gallery as well.
MMoA will bring in “Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post Covers: Tell Me a Story” from June 13 to Sept. 12. Many of Rockwell’s original paintings are gone, but museum-goers can see all the cover images in this exhibition.
As MMoA Executive Director V. Susan Fisher notes, an exhibition of Rockwell covers could explore a variety of subjects — political history perhaps or social history. The focus here will be the narratives, since Rockwell was presenting a story in each of his covers about America.
“Norman Rockwell never pretended he was representing all of America. He was constrained by, let’s put it delicately, but he was constrained by the norms of his time ... Norman Rockwell made a lot of space for a lot of people in his timeline, but there were people not represented there, so we want to throw those doors wide open and encourage our visitors to tell their stories,” Fisher says.
With this exhibition, MMoA wants people to tell their stories “and to see themselves as part of this timeline, this magnificent, huge, diverse flow of American history,” she says.
Exactly how that will happen is still being determined; it could, for instance, involve jotting down on Post-it Notes responses to such prompts as “What do you remember from when you were a certain age?” or “What do you recall about your neighborhood?” and then posting those in MMoA for others to read.
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