Unburied treasure in Woodstock

Carolyn Haeberlin (1913-2000), Self portrait, 1964, Oil on canvas, 15 x 18 (photo by Dion Ogust)

Carolyn Haeberlin (1913-2000), Self portrait, 1964, Oil on canvas, 15 x 18 (photo by Dion Ogust)

One of the great paradoxes and frustrations of a career in museum curation is often the fact that the space available for exhibition is grossly inadequate to display an ever-growing collection. Many such institutions try to think up new ways to organize, categorize and interpret segments of their holdings, so that a different slice is always on public view. Others send thematically related groupings of items from their collections on the road, so that somebody at least will get to see them. But all too often, the majority of a museum’s long-accumulated raison d’etre lurks below the surface.

How often we hear these days of some treasure recently unearthed by an old museum employee with a long memory or a curious young intern with an assignment to catalogue the contents of boxes, drawers and cabinets that haven’t been opened in years. Sometimes society even learns something important in the process that forces us to reorganize our mental picture of the past in a good, stretchy way, like when diligent burrowing in the collections of Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz over the past decade turned up evidence of the key role played by African slaves in the settlement and prosperity of that town.

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The people at the Historical Society of Woodstock seem to know what they’ve got; and in a town whose history has been bound up in its redefinition as a refuge for artists, that hoard of artifacts of historical interest overlaps a great deal with the purview of art museums. The fact that a particular school or style of art has currently gone out of fashion will not deter a historical society’s interest in acquiring artworks for purely documentary purposes, to the great benefit of future generations when that particular period in art history is eventually seen as valuable once again. To cite the most obvious example in our part of the world, it was not so long ago that – incredible as it seems now – sublime works by artists of the Hudson River School could be had for shamefully low prices at garage sales, just because the trendy art world had deemed Luminist landscapes stuffy, academic and irrelevant.

So let us be thankful to these guardians of a community’s collective memory, and applaud the collaboration currently going on between the Historical Society of Woodstock, which owns a lot of artworks from the days of the town’s second wave of “colonization,” and the Woodstock School of Art, which has a fine gallery space in which to display some of those holdings. A new exhibition of 20th-century paintings, “Seldom Seen: Works from the Collection of the Historical Society of Woodstock,” will open there on Saturday, September 13. It marks the first time that a comprehensive survey of the art from the collection has been shown in a large venue.

Thanks to some grant money from the New York State Council of the Arts and Ulster County’s Cultural Services and Promotion Fund, administered by Arts Mid-Hudson, the two local institutions were able to bring in a distinguished outside curator to view the Historical Society’s permanent collection with a fresh eye and select what would go on display. Among many other laurels, Susana Torruella Leval wore the title of director of El Museo del Barrio for eight years and served a term as president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. She is currently a board member of both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the national Institute of Museum and Library Services.

“The artists did change Woodstock,” writes Torruella Leval in the exhibition catalogue, and documented its transformation even as they influenced it forever. “Artists traversed Woodstock’s surrounding landscape in all seasons, lovingly recording the gentle Catskills, lush meadows, winding streams, twisting roads named after neighbors, barns and farms now gone. They documented their beloved village with now-quaint views of the Dutch Reformed Church, the post office, the Trading Post, Henry Peper’s forge, the firehouse, the restaurant on the Green, and the still-vital Library Fair. Their fun-loving side created a delightful bestiary: real pets, whimsical creatures, strange birds and carefully observed farm beasts. Finally, the artists looked closely at themselves.”

Thus Landscape, Bestiary and Self-Portrait are the three headings under which the 64 selected works are organized for viewing. Represented are artists long-associated with America’s first artist colony who are known nationally, as well as lesser-known local artists who called Woodstock home. The exhibition includes drawings, paintings and prints by Charles Rosen, Otto Bierhals, Clarence Bolton, John F. Carlson, Marion Bullard, Richard Segalman, Eva Van Rijn, Tor Gudmundsen, Eduardo Chavez, Ernest Fiene, Carolyn Haeberlin and many more.

This collaboration between two important, long-running local institutions with differing missions exemplifies the “combining experience,” the interweaving of old and new values that Woodstock town historian Richard Heppner has pegged as crucial to the formation of the town’s identity: Woodstock’s history, he writes, was “shaped by connections formed between newly arrived artists and those who drew life and livelihoods from the very landscape that would find its way onto a multitude of canvases over the years. As a result, it is a history that has transcended great change while remaining grounded in its original purpose.”

Come see “what the artists saw” when they started arriving here circa 1900. “Seldom Seen: Works from the Collection of the Historical Society of Woodstock” will be on view at the Woodstock School of Art’s Robert H. Angeloch Gallery from September 13 through November 1, with an opening reception from 3 to 5 p.m. this Saturday. For more information call (845) 679-2388 or visit ulsterpub.staging.wpengineschoolofart.org.

“Seldom Seen: Works from the Collection of the Historical Society of Woodstock” opening, Saturday, September 13, 3-5 p.m., through November 1, Robert H. Angeloch Gallery, Woodstock School of Art, 2470 Route 212, Woodstock; (845) 679-2388, ulsterpub.staging.wpengineschoolofart.org.

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