An exhibition titled “The Historic Woodstock Art Colony: The Arthur A. Anderson Collection” opened on November 10 at the New York State Museum, showcasing a collection of historic Woodstock art that’s an important addition to the museum’s archives. The display of approximately 100 artworks, most dating from the first half of the 20th century, consists of paintings, drawings, lithographs, ceramicware, sculpture and photographs. Collectively they beautifully showcase the craftsmanship, variable styles and dynamic relationships and experimentation that characterized one of America’s foremost art colonies.
The exhibition, which is up through December 2019, represents “the tip of the iceberg,” according to New York State Museum senior historian and curator Karen Quinn, who hosted an opening-day tour. In its entirety, the Arthur A. Anderson Collection consists of 1,500 objects representing nearly 200 Woodstock artists. From 1902, when the Byrdcliffe Art Colony was founded, to the postwar years, when abstraction in various styles held sway in local studios, Woodstock was a powerhouse of artmaking. The establishment of a summer school by the Art Students League, Hervey White’s launch of the Maverick and the founding of the Woodstock Artists Association, which provided exhibition space, were just a few of the highlights of the ceaseless activity that brought hundreds of artists to the community and launched a dozen movements, in which avant-garde abstractionists vied with landscape painters and Ashcan realists.
Anderson, a longtime supporter of the arts – he has served on the boards of the Woodstock/Byrdcliffe Guild and Woodstock Artists Association and currently is vice president of the board of the Samuel Dorsky Museum at SUNY-New Paltz – began collecting work by Woodstock artists 30 years ago. A particular focus was George Bellows and his circle of artist-friends; he acquired almost 200 works-on-paper by Bellows and dozens of drawings, prints and watercolors by other artists, including Bolton Brown (Brown, a founder of Byrdcliffe, was the first person to adapt lithography as a fine arts medium; a few of his prints as well as a lovely tonalist landscape by him are in the show).
There are oil paintings of landscapes as well as some gorgeous watercolors, prints, gouaches and drawings; numerous portraits, including an eyecatching larger-than-life pastel portrait of a slim, stylish woman in a black hat by Winold Reiss; small sculptures, including a self-portrait in plaster by artist Paul Fiene, a spare assemblage of falling bronze beams by Edward Chavez and a clay relief head by Mary Frank; stylized and cubistic still-lifes; two submissions for the WPA mural in the Poughkeepsie post office; and abstract paintings from the postwar years, including a fabulous Braquelike painting by Karl Fortess in 1950 and an airy Al Held, of intersecting geometric forms on a white ground.
One of the collection’s perqs is that it has been carefully catalogued. “In the future we’ll delve deeper,” Quinn said, noting that a book on the collection authored by various scholars is in the works. The museum also plans to make the database available online.
Anderson, who grew up in Michigan, obtained his first artwork when he was a teenager. It was a small landscape by 17th-century painter Salvator Rosa, which was discovered in the storeroom of the family cottage and given to him by his mother. But his academic pursuits lay elsewhere: He studied organic chemistry and American history at Brown University and graduated from Yale Law School, specializing in intellectual property, before embarking on a career as a lawyer and entrepreneur. He and a partner started the nation’s first discount brokerage firm, where Anderson specialized in cable television. Eventually he started his own marketing and management consultant firm. Based in New York City, he spent weekends at a house in West Shokan, which he recently sold, relocating to another house in Ulster County. Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods caught up with Anderson at his new home.
When did you first come to the Woodstock area?
I was working in the City and had a friend who had a farm near Ellenville, named John Simon. He was a musician and represented the Band. With my then-wife I’d stay on his farm in a tent, and then decided to rent a house in the area. In 1975 I bought a cabin in West Shokan.
How did you get interested in Woodstock artists?
The first painting I bought was of a beautiful woman with red lips by Norbert Heermann, a friend of Bellows, which I found in a gallery in Saugerties. [The portrait is in the NYS Museum exhibition.] Afterward I had buyer’s remorse and wondered, “Who’s the artist? And who’s the sitter?” And I began to get interested in George Bellows. The WAAM catalogue [titled Woodstock’s Art Heritage: The Permanent Collection of the Woodstock Artists Association] was the place to learn about Woodstock artists. I began to read about them and got to know Jim Cox and Tom Fletcher [who both own Woodstock galleries].
How did you acquire the pieces?
I went to local auctions held by Fletcher, Cox and a guy in Saugerties named Donny Malone. As I kept up my interest in history and collecting, I bought not only paintings, but also works-on-paper. With Bellows, I could own a painting or purchase 150 drawings. Drawings were not popular to collect when I started, and they were a way to study an artist. Also, I could easily store the works in flat files.
I went to private dealers and also the big auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Some works I collected were deaccessioned from museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Art. The advantage of bidding on a piece that was deaccessioned was that its provenance was known, and also there was no reserve.
When I got to an auction, I worried that this piece was going to disappear. I always felt it needed to be reintroduced to the American art canon.
I’m guessing much of this work sat around in museum basement storehouses, so it’s good you were able to acquire it and bring it back into the light of day.
It always shocked me that a museum would sell off this stuff that was priceless. The Whitney Museum has a lot of works by historic Woodstock artists. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney supported more Modernist advanced artists, whose work she collected and gave to the museum. Just now they’re starting to show it.
Where did you keep your collection?
In 1990 I bought an old timber-frame barn and had it torn down and reconstructed on my property. In the basement I put an art storage room.
Were there any particular milestones in your collecting?
I met Jean Bellows, George Bellows’ youngest daughter, through one of my favorite dealers. I was motivated to buy works by Bellows and his circle, which included Eugene Speicher and Charles Rosen. I built an art library, and now have 1,000 books to educate myself. Back then there was no internet, so it was a challenge to learn about upcoming auctions. The only resource was Art and Antiques Weekly, which posted these auction companies with lists of the artists. You’d call them up and say, “Can you send me a Polaroid of the Speicher piece and tell me the condition of it?” I’d bid on the phone, and while a lot of the pieces came from the Hudson Valley, I got many things remotely, from as far away as Canada and California. New Orleans was a good market because a very well-known collector of drawings and lithographs by Bellows came from that city.
Sometimes you really want a piece because it fits into your collection and you forget what you are paying for it. Sometimes the bidding got out of control if someone else wanted it. The collection became my extended family as well as my bank account.
If it turned out a work wasn’t in good condition, could you return it?
If you’re buying it at an auction, it’s always “as is,” so I would have the piece conserved or restored. St. Julian Fishburne was a very well-known conservator who lived in New Paltz, and every painting I bought he looked at. At the exhibition yesterday, the paintings glistened. Until then, I didn’t know how they’d look under bright lights.
You not only conserved and, if necessary, reframed the works in your collection, you have also catalogued it. That must have been an enormous job.
Initially, I put all the papers in a box, but five years ago I started to regularize the database and hired people and had interns from Bard College and SUNY-New Paltz to help me do this. I had all of the pieces photographed, and all the dates, provenance, condition, the whole history of each piece is in a database. Eric Lapp played a key role in describing and digitizing the collection.
It’s a dream come true for a collector: having it go to a museum that can use the database and doesn’t have to go through all that work to get the pieces ready to show.
Your collection also includes memorabilia, such as the 1926 map showing all the artists’ residences, which is in the exhibition.
Look at this [takes a long silver engraved cup off a shelf]. It’s a gift from the Art Students League to Speicher in 1910. It appealed to me because art is a vehicle in which to talk about the history of the Woodstock colony, its community and the complicated relationships the artists had with each other.
I assume some of those relationships had a bearing on your collection. Many artists were married to each other or were close friends.
Fletcher Martin and Philip Guston were both from LA, and Martin convinced Guston to move to Woodstock. I have a drawing Guston did in Woodstock and gave to Fletcher Martin, which I got from Martin’s son.
What’s the historic importance of the Woodstock art colony?
It was the first year-round intentional art colony in the country. Four people, including a woman, founded the Byrdcliffe Art Colony intentionally as a utopian place for arts and crafts, and the Woodstock arts community has built on that tradition to this day. Then, when the Art Students League established its summer school here in 1906, people came up here in the summer, bringing their fellow artists. By 1926, there were at least 200 artists. During the Depression, the federal government commissioned more works from artists in Ulster County than anyplace else except New York City.
When did you first consider donating your collection?
By 1998, friends and relatives were asking me, “What on Earth was I doing?” I wasn’t hanging the work; it was all stored. I’d have shows for friends in the barn and never sold anything. I usually bought a piece for a reason, and at some point I realized I was creating a study collection of the historic Woodstock art colony. People would say, “Why do you have five portraits by Eugene Speicher?” Little did they know I had 20! This is cultural history. I used to loan to museums, and I took great pleasure in that; they borrow for a reason: because the work is part of the narrative of their exhibition.
Three years ago, I got the process going, realizing I needed to find a home for my collection. I had several requirements: The institution had to take the entire collection, because it is a study collection. They had to have quality storage; they had to explain how they were going to use it; and the collection had to be available for others for exhibition and research purposes.
Why did you select the New York State Museum?
I’m very involved with the Dorsky. I endowed the main gallery, and from the beginning, part of my condition was that the gallery would show Woodstock art. The Dorsky’s Eugene Ludens and Speicher shows traveled to the New York State Museum. I met the director, who is an outstanding person and personally collects Woodstock art. Two-and-a-half years ago, the museum hired Karen Quinn, an American art historian from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. When I found that out, I contacted them.
It’s interesting that you chose an educational institution, not an art museum.
The museum is part of the State Education Department. Together with the state archives and library, it is run by the Board of Regents, which sets the standards for elementary and high school students in the state. They’re owned by the state and they get state funding, and they will lend their collection to anyone else, like a library or museum, at no cost. Plus, 50,000 schoolchildren go there every year.
So, by being part of the State Museum, your collection will be accessible to many more people than it would be in a regional or academic art institution.
The mission of art museums is art – generally famous art. But the way we bring the historic Woodstock art colony to young people is through education. The museum will find a way to communicate this art to young people in a language they understand.
What do you hope happens next?
I hope my donation gives other people ideas of what do with their collections. I’ve already made connections with five different families of artists who are interested in donating to the museum.
Next year is the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival, the 100th anniversary of the Woodstock Artists Association and the 115th anniversary of the Byrdcliffe Art Colony. The New York State Museum can play a pivotal role as a venue for conferences, symposia and panels about the historic Woodstock art colony. This exhibition goes through December 2019, and already Karen Quinn is planning programs around it, such as a lecture series. My hope is what happened to the art and artists of the Hudson River School of Art will also happen to the art of the historic Woodstock art colony: that it’ll be known and appreciated. Fifty years from now, this work will be out there where people can see it and enjoy it as part of American history.