As institutions move—and are being moved—to re-examine what they do and how they do it, the Delaware Art Museum has mounted Collecting and Connecting: Recent Acquisitions 2010-2020. It’s a compelling meta undertaking that directly addresses those questions by creatively joining explanation and exploration with aesthetics.
Museums regularly add to their collections for a variety of reasons, explained in the exhibition’s wall text, and this museum adds works that enhance its five main collections: American Illustration, British Pre-Raphaelites, American Art to 1960, Contemporary Art, and the Helen Farr Sloan Library and Archives. To create Collecting and Connecting, curators mined a decade of newly acquired acquisitions, considering more than 1,000 objects to arrive at the rich trove of 105 works elegantly presented here.
On its most obvious level, the exhibition focuses on questions often posed (or pondered) by viewers: “Why and how does a museum collect? Why is collecting important?” Cogent curatorial answers appear throughout the exhibition: to expand collections, to explore untold stories, to support artists and communities. But the most compelling answers come from these artworks and artists themselves.
A gallery adventure
The work on view spans a wide array of media and time periods, and the challenge of how to mount a seamless exhibition instead of a dilatory mash-up was ingeniously solved by creating insightful groupings. Regardless of medium or time period, artworks are displayed to illuminate artistic connections, and viewed this way—out of the chronological gaze or any period categorization—they generate surprising and lovely revelations.
Over the past decade, the museum has sought to diversify its collections with acquisitions particularly rich in works by women artists and artists of color, shown here in groupings that excite and inspire. When I visited, the large gallery was buzzing with multi-generational viewers conversing and comparing.
The exhibition’s scope at first feels a little daunting, but as you ease into its premise and simply allow these works in their well-chosen groupings to speak, it morphs into an adventure. At heart, artists are explorers, and the premise here is that regardless of who they are, where they come from, or when they worked, artists explore in remarkably similar ways. The surprise of Collecting and Connecting is that the viewer joins in this exploration.
Delicate, searing, vivid, chilling
Torso (c.1972) by contemporary American artist Bernard Felch is a gorgeous, stop-you-in-your-tracks abstract monumental figure carved from a single block of wood. It’s unexpectedly paired with the delicate Study for a Bather (1891) by Pre-Raphaelite Albert Moore. These works could hardly be more divergent—one created using the melting softness of colored chalk on textured paper and the other hewn from a solid chunk of gorgeous-grained wood. But although they were created almost a century apart, they are united by russet tones, burning luminosity, and the artists’ clear love for the human form.
A section grouping seven works focused on the female face includes Identity (2006) by Emma Amos and a searing 1996 portrait of Pre-Raphaelite Lizzie Siddal by Leonard Baskin, a work that unites two of the Museum’s disparate collecting areas. The swirling, colorful abstract lithograph Two Dancers (2004) by Edward Colker is juxtaposed with Carlo Leonetti’s sepia-toned 1925 gelatin silver print of dance icons Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, works separated by time and media but united by vivid movement.
Glass cases focus on the museum’s book acquisitions, while two color photographs by Nina Katchadourian intertwine collections by arranging some of the museum’s early 20th-century artist-designed books to create 21st-century narratives. Sartorial sections on drapery and clothing (for women and men) include a delicate, feminine embroidered lavender day dress and slippers by Victorian artist Marie Spartali Stillman; Stephen Attinger’s arresting larger-than-life oil Soon, Some Morning (1967-69) of a casually attired Black man directly addressing the viewer; and Robert Jones’ Shroud (1984), a free-standing, life-size empty fiberglass garment that evokes chills even as it beckons.
Arts institutions are seeking ways to engage potential and current users and viewers, a salutary goal. Collecting and Connecting addresses this aim, but there’s more here. By grouping works so vastly disparate and displaying them in proximity, the exhibition unites the artists themselves across time, space, media, and culture, exploring a drive for creativity and connection both universal and timeless.
Co-curated by Margaretta S. Frederick (the museum’s resident curator and Pre-Raphaelite scholar) and Caroline Giddis (2020 Appel Curatorial Fellow), Collecting and Connecting exudes a palpable sense of their excitement as the two women found and focused these artist pairings. They ask, “What happens when you place two unrelated works of art from different continents, centuries, movements, and artistic backgrounds next to one another on a gallery wall? Something magical.” Giddis will give a gallery talk on September 10 and 11, and the exhibition runs through September 12, 2021.
What, When, Where
Collecting and Connecting: Recent Acquisitions 2010-2020. Through September 12, 2021, at Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington, DE. 302-571-9590 or delart.org
Facemasks are required in the museum for unvaccinated people over age 2.
The Delaware Art Museum and Sculpture Garden are wheelchair accessible, with free parking and a barrier-free entrance. Wheelchairs are available; personal care attendants receive free admission.
The front entrance is under construction; plan to enter at the Sculpture Garden (rear) entrance.