Letter: Museum's crown jewels glitter in many ways
In 1991, my first task as trustee of the newly formed Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio was to conclude the sale of Suzy Frelinghuysen's 1946 collage "Carmen" to the Berkshire Museum. Curator Debra Balkan had carefully negotiated the sale directly with Frelinghuysen before her death in 1988, capitalizing on Suzy Frelinghuysen's desire to sell only to museums in her later years in her zeal to make art available to the public.
Curator Balkan's interest was to add dimension to a 1943 bequest to the Berkshire Museum of about a dozen paintings from the collection of A.E. Gallatin. His Museum of Living Art was the first of its kind to open in New York City in 1927, and was shown in the study hall of New York University. It had the unusual distinction of only exhibiting masterpieces by living modern masters such as Picasso, Braque, Gris and Leger. This was two years before the Museum of Modern Art opened its doors and was the only place in America that these and other abstract works by American modernists could be seen, influencing a whole generation of artists and art lovers.
George L.K. Morris became the curator of the Gallatin collection and married Frelinghuysen in 1935. The trustees of New York University in their finite and short-sighted wisdom wanted more space for book shelves and, in 1942, sent the Gallatin collection looking for a new residence and ultimately lost billions of dollars worth of modern art. The Philadelphia Museum of Art stepped forward and secured Gallatin's gift of 175 Cubist masterworks. Frelinghuysen and Morris, with their attachment to the Berkshires, wangled the small modern art bequest from Gallatin for the Berkshire Museum, beginning their dedication to making art available to the public.
As of this writing we are not aware that this collection and "Carmen" are headed to the auction block to fund a renovated museum and an endowment. The jewels in the crown of the Berkshire Museum's art collection glitter not only through their sensual offerings, but also from the legacies and stories of how they got here. Through the magical fascination of artistic experience our verbal faculties are balanced with the flourish of our visual ones. With each step, the individual understands how he or she fits into human history.
While many residents cannot get to the great art collections in our big cities, a generous helping of the same quality of art is within easy access at the Berkshire Museum. The significance of the Gallatin legacy is on par with the unique examples of Rockwell's art, the plaster cast of the ancient "Winged Victory of Samothrace" and on down in time to the Egyptian mummy. Abstract art invites the viewer to complete its meaning by bringing in personal experience. In essence, the art honors the phrase, "see for yourself." Adults and children alike build their own authority in the learning process.
The writer is director, Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio.
Editor's note: Late Monday, the Berkshire Museum released the list of the 40 artworks up for auction. "Carmen" is not among them.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.
Other items that may interest you