Q & A: AIHA curator says rare items on view just part of Institute’s trove
ALBANY A painting of President Chester A. Arthur as a Samurai warrior?
How about chiffon dresses from “Downton Abbey” days, a red Chinese lacquer chair with carvings of five-toed dragons and jewelry made of human hair?
There’s something strange going on at the Albany Institute of History & Art, and it could remind you of “Antiques Roadshow” or “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”
“Great, Strange, and Rarely Seen: Objects from the Vault,” co-curated by Tammis K. Groft and Doug McCombs, is a sampling of interesting items from the museum’s collection of 30,000 objects and the stories behind them.
For 25 years, Groft, who is the museum’s chief curator and deputy director, has been the museum’s Sherlock Holmes, digging up these stories and presenting them in exhibits so that visitors can appreciate them.
She has curated more than 100 exhibits at Albany Institute, which is renowned as the country’s best collection documenting the life and culture of the Upper Hudson Valley region from the late 17th century to the present.
A Connecticut native, Groft majored in anthropology at Hartwick College, earned a master’s degree in museum studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program of the SUNY College at Oneonta and worked as curator of the Nelson Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Collection before arriving at Albany Institute in 1987.
She is married to attorney David Quinn, and they have two children, Hallee, 23, a marketing assistant at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and Elias, 20, a student at Scotland’s University of Glasgow.
Groft is an adjunct professor at the University at Albany, serves on the board of directors of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, is a co-author of “Hudson River Panorama” and co-editor, with Mary Alice MacKay, of “Albany Institute of History & Art: 200 Years of Collecting.”
Longtime readers of The Gazette may recall that Groft was in the headlines, and later in a Woman’s Day magazine story, after she was the victim of a vicious crime at her Albany home.
In September 1989, an intruder stabbed her in the chest with a knife, narrowly missing her heart. Groft pulled the knife from her body and then stabbed the man in the back.
The intruder served 15 years for the crime and was released.
Q: How did you decide what to put in this exhibit?
A: Doug McCombs (curator of history and materials culture) and I felt like kids in a candy store, going back and selecting our favorite things, or things that would be interesting for people to see. It feels like we have 22 small exhibitions in the gallery. What ties them together is the fact they are each collections. For example, the Japanese netsuke [miniature sculptures], that’s a collection assembled by an Albanian who was living in Japan.
Q: How did such a big exhibit come together?
A: It was really a team effort. There are over 250 objects in 22 different sections. We relied on volunteers and interns. Some of them were graduate students doing internships for SUNY Albany.
Q: Did you have any surprises when looking for these objects?
A: Certainly, in the collections, we have seen everything. But until you start delving in and doing the research, in some ways, you don’t really appreciate the stories behind the various objects. With the Chinese materials, which were donated to us by the Hanrahans, they are all just superb examples of the craftsmanship from 18th century China and in Thailand. Until you do the research on these lacquer pieces, you don’t understand how long it took and that the sap used to make them was actually quite injurious to your health.
Q: What objects is the Albany Institute famous for?
A: Certainly, the Hudson River School paintings are very well-known. The Albany Institute is well known for the 18th century Hudson Valley portraits. The 19th-century cast-iron stove collection is well-known. Our collection related to Erastus Dow Palmer, the sculptor, Walter Launt Palmer, the painter, Albany silver and Albany-related furniture from the 18th and 19th century.
Q: Does you plan to do “From the Vault” again?
A: I can certainly see the museum doing it again, with a whole different set of materials.
There is more than enough material back there in storage to do another “Objects from the Vault.” We have a very important and interesting collection of mourning pictures. We have quilts and coverlets. There are materials related to advertising in Albany. We have a whole selection of buttons designed and made by Marion Weeber.
Q: Are the museum’s 30,000 objects stored in the building?
A: Yes. We have three floors of temperature and humidity-controlled storage that has a gaseous particle filtration system.
Q: Can we see pictures of the collection online?
A: In the end of the summer, the museum will be launching a new website. We will have a catalog of 1,000 images that have been digitized, with descriptions. And then we’re hoping to add about another 500 images every year.
Q: Is the museum still collecting objects?
A: Absolutely. Most of our collections have been donated by people with ties to the region. We get calls regularly. We want to make sure that it relates to the mission and fits within the perimeters of the collection. Just this year, we were offered two spinning wheels from two different families with strong ties to the region. The Albany Institute did not have any spinning wheels. Now we have two spinning wheels.
Q: Are there other objects you would like to add to the collection?
A: I have wish list of things. Eventually someone will hopefully donate a painting by Grandma Moses. We’re also interested in a piece of sculpture by a woman by the name of Edmonia Lewis, a 19th century sculptor from the Albany area with African-American and American Indian ancestry.
Q: How many pieces of contemporary art in the collection?
A: We’re certainly over 250. It’s a major priority. With the Mohawk Hudson Regional, we acquire a piece every year, and we have since 1936. Over the years, we’ve had donors that have supported this initiative. Collectors also now see the Albany Institute as a place for a collection.
Q: The museum is planning programs for collectors in 2013?
A: People collect a lot of things. Collectors like to share their passion. Having a forum to discuss, share and perhaps exhibit is something that the museum is interested in doing and promoting.
Q: How did you decide to become a curator?
A: From the time I was in college, I thought about working in a museum or special collections library. During college, I was fortunate enough to live in India, England and Austria. And when I was living in India, I was immersed in Indian culture and the arts, and I thought that to really understand this culture, I would need to live there. It was really at that point that I decided that I would come back to the States, and I found a graduate program, the Cooperstown graduate program for museum studies and American folk culture.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: Gardening, long walks, hiking. I go to museums. There’s nothing finer than to spend a day or two days in a city that I’ve never been to and look at the city through the eyes of the art in the museums.
Q: And you teach people about the Hudson Valley?
A: I work for the Smithsonian, one week a year. I’m the study leader for an eight-day cruise on the Hudson River. It’s called the American Cruise Line and there are 50 passengers. People from all over the country are coming to learn more about the rich art history and culture of the Hudson Valley. The experience of being on the river is really quite extraordinary.
Q: What do you collect?
A: I have a very nice small collection of rocks that I pick up at the ocean.
Q: Are you OK with talking about the 1989 attack?
A: I have no problem talking about it. Until you’re in it, you don’t know what you are going to do. Survival instinct kicks in. It is pretty remarkable that I survived. It will always being a big part of my life. I just feel incredibly lucky.