Museums don’t grow on trees. Civic places of stewardship and learning, museums, as often as not, find their genesis in the decades that bracket the turn of the century, founded by giants of industry—steel manufacturers, oil barons, and railroad magnates in an era of expansive, even exuberant, American spirit. More recently, technology entrepreneurs and even Hollywood titans have contributed museums to the American cultural landscape. Indeed, museums do not grow on trees. One comes from sugar cane. Shelburne Museum, the life-work of sugar heiress Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960), was built by a woman of vision and perseverance who placed her resources in the service of the people of Vermont by creating what she called “an educational project, varied and alive.”
Sugar, the artist Kara Walker (born 1969) reminded us in 2014 with her installation “A Subtlety, or the Giant Sugar Baby,” is as complicated a commodity as any. Staged by Creative Time in a retired Domino warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Walker created a 35-foot high sphinx that traded in the age-old stereotype of the “Mammy” figure, a caricature of an African-American nurse, to remind us that while sugar may indeed be of the earth, extracting that sweetness is built upon centuries of human toil.
Sweet Tooth: The Art of Desert, our extraordinary fall exhibition in the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education, plumbs the myriad ways in which contemporary artists have employed sugary fantasies in a wide variety of media. A nod to Walker’s installation, the exhibition gathers meaning from the very roots of Shelburne Museum and invites the viewer to consider the complexity inherent in the oft voracious desire for creations made from the “sweet grass.”
Sweet Tooth joins our newly reopened and reinstalled Decoy Collection in Dorset House as a project that approaches a subject in new and multivalent ways to meet our audiences where they are and engender learning. Later in September we open Hooked on Patty Yoder, a look at the first and last work of Shelburne Museum’s good friend Patty Yoder (1943-2005), a textile artist who produced work that continues to inspire visitors of all ages.
Museums don’t grow on trees. They are human endeavors that, when “varied and alive,” inform our days and uplift the spirit. I would like to thank our founder for her clear-eyed vision, the entire staff at Shelburne Museum for their hard work in organizing such import projects, and our members and donors for nurturing these ideas with enthusiasm and support.
I look forward to seeing you at the Museum.