Recollections: Works at WCMA Donated by Reunion Class Alumni
—Hillary Reder MA’14, graduate student intern at WCMA
This semester, I curated a pop-up exhibition for Williams College alumni reunion weekend. The reasons behind such an exhibition were relatively straightforward: WCMA has been lucky enough to benefit from generations of alumni donations and this show allowed us to celebrate this legacy of giving. Also, while visiting WCMA during reunion, alumni have often asked to see works they have donated over the years. This show helped us to proactively address some of those requests.
My first step was to determine what was available, meaning which works, out of our nearly 14,000 objects, were donated by members of this year’s reunion classes. Luckily, our database allowed me to search the works based on their credit lines. This was essential, because donors’ names—along with their class years—are always recorded in the credit line. I began my search with the class of ’28, working my way up to ’08. I eventually had 300 objects on my hands, donated by about 30 alumni.
To narrow down these 300, a few things were on my mind: which works had never been on view before? Which alumni would likely attend reunion? Which works were donated most recently? Despite these more practical concerns, the first work that I decided absolutely had to be in the show was a Helen Frankenthaler woodcut, Savage Breeze (1963), donated by Scot McCulloch ’68, purely because I really liked it.
This impulse ended up being fruitful: deciding that the Frankenthaler would definitely be included, I went into our files and found a fantastic letter from McCulloch to WCMA, describing his family’s interest in art, and a little bit about the process of donating the work. Here is a pdf of the McCulloch Letter.
Once I had this letter, the idea for the show fell into place. Using our archives, I found documents that brought to light aspects of the donors’ stories, hoping to gather information about their collecting practices, and reasons behind giving their works to WCMA. Here is a pdf of a letter from James Thrall Soby.
And that’s also when I decided on the name Recollections for the show. Many of the documents included recollections—donors reminiscing about growing up with certain works of art, for example—but there is a second meaning: all works that I chose were once part of private collection before they were “re-collected” by WCMA.
I decided on 17 works from 14 donors, and found for most of them some sort of accompanying document (which ended up being quite diverse; besides letters, I also included a biography written by a donor’s daughter, a list of several of the works given to WCMA by a single donor, as well as excerpts from an interview I conducted).
The next stage was the installation. Our preparations crew helped me to make many of the decisions about where and how to place the works, but I knew from the beginning that certain works belonged together.
For example, as soon as I saw the Diebenkorn’s Colored Landscape (1969), I knew I wanted to hang it next to the Frankenthaler. They share a similar formal language: both have a vertical line towards their left edges and a convex perspective. Then, I noticed that Jasper Johns’ Painting with Two Balls I (1962), which consists of three horizontal stripes, echoed three stripes in the Diebenkorn. The Richard Misrach’s mostly blue photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge has a bright yellow stripe, which worked nicely with the brightest section of the Diebenkorn, also a yellow stripe.
Another grouping consisted of Fritz Bultman’s Tacke (Braided Hair), two Tiepolos (respectively by Giovanni and Lorenzo), and a 17th century Dutch etching by Claesz Jansz. Visscher the Younger. The connection here was one that materialized in the works credit lines, all of which revolved around James Deely ’43. Deely, the former head of WCMA’s Visiting Committee, donated the Bultman in honor of former WCMA director Lane Faison ’29. Deely’s daughters and David Tunick ’66, in turn, donated their works in honor of Deely, while Roger Mandle ’63, donated his work in honor of Tunick’s daughter.
The rest of the works were organized on the basis of a combination of formally-minded and biographical concerns—for example, I was sure to put the work donated by Fredrick Myers ’43 and those donated by his son Christopher Myers ’88 on the same table, while Karl Knaths’ Yellow Pumpkin and Leonid Berman’s Le Globe were next to each other because they share a shade of turquoise.
The show was open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of alumni weekend, and was a great success. About 250 people visited, including relatives of the donors, their friends, and classmates. Recollections took place in Rose Study Gallery, a space where each year nearly 3,000 students encounter WCMA’s collection. Rose offers an intimate atmosphere perfect for close looking, and also special was that Jonathan Rose ‘63, the son of the gallery’s namesake, Milton C. Rose ’27, had reunion this year. He was able to enjoy works donated by his classmates in a beautiful gallery that honors his father.
Here are a few of my favorite moments from the weekend:
Christopher Myers’ freshman year roommate stopped by, and took photos of the works donated by Myers and emailed them to him—which was nice because Christopher couldn’t make reunion. The roommate remembered going to Myers’ parents’ house in Pittsfield, but doesn’t remember seeing any art on the walls—which I found interesting because Fredrick and his wife Elizabeth donated nearly 150 works to WCMA!
Although Michael Harrington ’53 and his wife weren’t at reunion, they told Barbara Weeden, the wife of Michael Harrington’s classmate, that the Diebenkorn they donated would be on view, and she very much enjoyed seeing it.
Jean Fulkerson ’88 stopped by, and was happy to see included in the show a biography of her father, Richard Janson ’48, that she had written. She had no memory of ever seeing the Flavin donated by her father, and she wondered where it came from.
Mr. and Mrs. Mandle, along with many ‘63s celebrating their 50th reunion visited. They were surprised to see their Visscher, as they had forgotten they donated it—but they still think it’s a great etching.
Bill Brewer ’43, one of the four members of his class to make it to the reunion came to WCMA. I showed him works donated by two of his classmates, both of whom he remembers: Fredrick Myers and James Deely. Brewer came all the way from Indianapolis, and drove himself from Albany to Williamstown.
Curating Recollections was a wonderful opportunity for me, and besides learning about our alumni donors, I was also able to gain new insights into WCMA’s collection. Focusing on credit lines allowed new connections to materialize between works that previously seemed disparate, making apparent that a single donor’s taste can substantially shape the character of an entire museum.