For years, art lovers have wondered aloud why the Everson Museum of Art doesn’t solicit traveling exhibitions to its storied, I.M. Pei-designed walls. This writer griped about it 10 years ago when a desire to see Monet at Giverny necessitated a drive to Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery, an overnight stay in the Queen City and the purchase of several meals. Such exhibitions are dreams come true for convention and visitors bureaus, what with their economic impact and all.
That Monet show seemed a perfect fit for the Everson. After I became editor-in-chief of this esteemed publication, I asked the museum’s then-public relations director Melanie Franklin why the oldest arts organization in Syracuse wasn’t seeking out these blockbusters. Her answer touched on the economics of such endeavors, and left it at that. Sure, such exhibitions require a leap of faith regarding funding, insurance and security issues, but they also engender positive PR, bring people to town who aren’t the type to don orange and schlep up a hill to a sterile sports dome, and generate buzz. Substantial buzz, in fact. Newspapers from Ottawa to Buffalo, says Everson director Steven Kern, have called and are devoting editorial space to Turner to Cezanne, a big show in little Syracuse that opened Friday, Oct. 9.
Pop art: A mother and son study Monet’s “Palazzo Dario” on the opening day of Turner to Cezanne, and museum director Steven Kern welcomes the community and all out-of-town visitors to a newly spruced up Everson. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
“A decision was made in 2006, before I got here,” says Kern, who took over leadership of the Everson in July 2008, “that there was a desire in this community to see what I would call significant exhibitions with broad public appeal. So the team here started casting nets to see what was available. This exhibition was in place before I was hired and this exhibition was a big part of the interview process.
“The question with the Turner to Cezanne show is not can you get a show like this here. It’s what are you going to do with it once it’s here? Anyone can bring an exhibition like this anywhere as long as the facility can accommodate it. This is essentially for me an opportunity to connect where we’ve never connected, although it’s only a first step. Shows like this cannot be what I like to call one-fers.”
The exhibition is also part of a larger picture of collaboration among many of the city’s arts organizations. The Onondaga Historical Association, Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, Syracuse Stage, Syracuse Opera, Central Library and Civic Morning Musicals have created programming that supports the exhibit (see accompanying story for details). So if you’re excited about a major traveling art exhibition being hung at the Everson, everything else that’s going on this fall should have you feeling pretty darn good about downtown’s cultural corridor.
Karen Gahl-Mills is the president and executive director of the Syracuse Symphony. She says Turner to Cezanne allows her organization to continue its existing partnership with the Everson. “When we first heard about this a couple of years ago, I knew then that it had the potential of being a terrific community-wide collaborative project,” she says. “So we decided to program some concerts that were complementary to the exhibit. And we are hoping to do pre-concert activities at the museum. What we are doing here serves as a model for how we can work together going forward.”
Likewise, Tim Bond says that this cooperation was a goal he set for himself when he was named producing artistic director at Syracuse Stage two years ago. “That’s one of my areas of expertise and interest,” he notes. “I believe that this is the beginning of a renaissance in the arts in Syracuse. The arts are an important component in the economic development of this community.”
Catherine Wolff, general and artistic director at Syracuse Opera, was looking at a challenge because there is only one impressionist opera, Pelleas et Malisande by Claude Debussy, and it’s not all that well known. She finally settled on La Boheme because it’s about artists living in Paris during the time of the impressionists, with one problem: The opera is Italian, not French. “When I saw the Renior painting, I thought, that could be Mimi’s costume, that could be Mimi,” she says of the opera’s main character.
Kern believes that these collaborations have to continue. “It is essential to enter into these types of collaborative efforts now to survive,” he says. “It is important that we always collaborate to thrive. All of the partners will create a culturally enriching experience, and the collaboration can’t stop. Will it always be 15 organizations? I think that’s overambitious. Will it always be the art museum at the center? I don’t want that. One problem is getting used to each other’s rhythms and recognizing the life cycles of each organization. This visual arts exhibition was first because it was on the overall calendar first.”
And now to the stars of our show, the 53 paintings and drawings chosen from the 260 that Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, sisters from Wales, purchased with money they inherited from their grandfather. The bulk of their acquisitions occurred between 1908 and 1920. “The Davies sisters put together this collection, not intending for it to be the history of art from 1840 to 1940, but that’s what it ends up being,” Kern says. “For somebody who wants a lesson in art history, all the pieces are there, from romanticism to realism to impressionism to cubism. By starting off conservatively with their purchases, the sisters have things that show us one aspect of what the standard was and what the impressionists were reacting against.”
Names like Honore Daumier and Eugene Boudin may cause the average art lover to shrug, especially when compared to Monet, Renoir and van Gogh. But they made a mark, just the same, and it’s important that they are included here. “The great thing about an exhibition like this is you can use the Davies sisters as this raison d’etre, and then move on to consider their point of view,” Kern says. “Why was Daumier so incredibly famous but we never hear about him anymore? Exhibits like this work when they include artists and objects that are part of popular culture. So you look at this Daumier and then you go into the next room with the Monets and you go, ‘Oh, yeah. I get that.’ Once people are brought into these things they recognize, then they can talk about the Honore Daumier ‘Head of a Man,’ and say to each other, ‘Have you ever seen anything like that?’ Artists rise and fall in terms of popularity, but that doesn’t make them any less influential.”
As for an artist making a mark on an entire “ism” of art, Kern points to Boudin, who painted “Venice, The Molo” two years before he died. “Boudin is arguably the most influential painter of this period because he said to Monet, ‘Hey, kid, paint outdoors.’”
Light, atmosphere and color: “At Bougival” by Berthe Morisot features images that appear out of the green surrounding them.
Turner to Cezanne includes three paintings by Claude Monet, probably the seminal figure in impressionist art. Considered radicals in the late 19th century, impressionists painted with visible brushstrokes and light colors, used open composition and emphasis on the changing qualities of light and focused on ordinary subject matters and unusual visual angles. The best impressionists are represented at the Everson—Renoir, Pissarro, van Gogh and Manet—but, alas, no Degas. Interpretive labels explain who the artist is and, if necessary, provide their backstory.
“Art historians have always loved backstories,” says Kern, pointing to Monet’s “Waterlilies.” “This artist who is now embraced as one of the most beloved artists of the 20th century was so destitute, so poor, the story is that he attempted suicide by jumping into the Seine. His early career was not easy. And Renoir, going from meal to meal early in his career. This has become the de facto poster child for impressionism,” he adds, pointing out “La Parisienne,” the now-famous woman wearing a blue dress.
In the exhibit’s third and final gallery, a little-seen but instantly recognizable van Gogh, “Rain-Auver,” draws you in with its blues and ochres delineating a strong geometry. The backstory there is that van Gogh completed this work weeks before he shot himself in the chest, dying three days later. Also compelling is Paul Cezanne’s “The Francois Zola Dam.” “To me,” Kern says, “this is the perfect painting. It’s not too big and not too small. It talks about this whole new way of looking at the world that Cezanne invented, or at least perfected—multiple perspectives and points of view, the geometry of the landscape, the trees. He’s turning his brushstrokes into geometry.”
Futhermore, Kern says this 1877 Cezanne, on the cover, represents another step in the progression of art that is the Davies collection. “This is only a teeny step to cubism in so many ways, but it’s 30 years before cubism. This is a reminder that Monet didn’t pick up a brush and impressionism burst forth from it,” he notes. “The Camille Corot and the Daumier and the others set the stage for Monet, Monet set the stage for the many isms that came out of impressionism, and the Cezanne here, well, it sets the stage maybe for a walk downstairs to see the Jackson Pollock.”
The Everson Museum has never strayed far from its mission of collecting and displaying American art, and that holds true for Turner to Cezanne. The fourth upstairs gallery shows off some of the classics in the Everson’s collection, like Edward Hicks’ “The Peaceable Kingdom,” Eastman Johnson’s “Corn Husking,” William Ongley’s “Early Autumn, Adirondacks,” and Levi Wells Prentice’s “Hopper’s Gorge, Onondaga Valley.” All the American work on display was created during the same time period as the paintings in the main show, except for one. Sarah McCoubrey’s “Available” is a 2000 landscape included for its use of color and light so it can be compared with the Corot works in the main exhibit.
“To bring an exhibition like this here, to show what these trends are in European art and to end with the American art in the last gallery, now our own collection is part of a very special exhibition,” Kern says. “Our identity is as valuable as a visiting collection, and our artwork is as important as any other that comes in.”
Still, Kern knows that the glorious paintings comprising Turner to Cezanne will bring people to the Everson Museum of Art that haven’t visited in a long time, or never. “There’s no denying that this exhibition raises the bar for us,” he says. “But it also raises the bar for the way that we as a community have gotten together around this exhibition. We are creating a culturally enriching experience.
“This is where everything comes together for me,” says Kern. “I’ve been working with this material since the early 1980s and paintings like this never fail. This exhibit shows the scope of the sisters’ collecting and the stories that can be told by the entire collection rather than ‘selections of’ or ‘masterpieces by.’ It allows us to tell stories on lots of levels: patronage, taste, philanthropy, aesthetics, taste, flow of ideas, creativity.
“This is a show that could be in a large city and this collection has never before left Wales. But the fact that it’s here in Syracuse, has been in Columbia, S.C., and Oklahoma City, will be in Washington, D.C., and Albuquerque, N.M., it is cutting deeply into middle America. It is going to places where it is able to cause sensation on the one hand, but more than that it’s allowing those who don’t have regular, ready access to work like this to make it possible.”
Not to mention the potential economic stimulus for Onondaga County. While the museum has budgeted $1.7 million to mount this exhibit, it also expects at least 58,000 visitors, 20 percent of whom are expected to stay overnight. David Holder, president of the Syracuse Convention and Visitors Bureau, devised that percentage using the numbers of out-of-state visitors who went to see the show in Columbia, S.C. “So based on length of stay, per-party spending, which is relatively high for this type of event, we’re looking at, conservatively, $4.3 million in total travel spending.”
And Kern is grateful that the show is going on during the bleak season in Syracuse. “The whole idea of light and atmosphere and color that is the very core of impressionism is going to carry us through the upcoming dark time gloriously. I’m going to wear this exhibit as a badge of honor for the rest of my career, with the physical plant upgrades and the collaborations. It’s been exhilarating.”
Also exciting are new audio tours that have been created to enhance the visitor’s walk through the three galleries. By dialing into the system with their cell phones, visitors can listen to Mike Tooby, director of Learning, Programs and Development at the National Museum of Wales, talk about the paintings; hear haiku written and read by Syracuse City School District children, “which offers another glimpse of what a painting can mean to an individual,” Kern notes; or a program Kern says is unique to the Everson, one using tonalities.
“This message is slightly longer than the others,” Kern says. “It begins with a narrative that gives a formal description of the painting, talks about how the artist deals with things like contrast, geometry and structure, and then says that if this painting were music, this is what it would sound like.” Then it plays an original composition, created by Barre Hunt O’Neill and Setnor Musicians, and recorded by Ronald Keck at Sub Cat Recording Studio, in Skaneateles.
For the tonalities interpretation, museum staff worked with Aurora of Central New York, which serves clients who are blind, visually impaired, deaf or hearing impaired. “You can’t get a more under-served constituency than those that are visually impaired in an art museum,” Kern notes. “These tonalities are profoundly moving and truly inspirational. The description of each work is so absolutely articulate. Visual arts and music, especially when you’re talking about impressionism. The impressionists themselves truly believed in this connection, with Renoir going so far as to say ‘I want my reds to sound as clearly as a trumpet.’ The whole idea of color music is a very important component of 20th-century art.”
Turner to Cezanne: Masterpieces from the Davies Collection, National Museum Wales continues at the Everson Museum of Art, 401 Harrison St., through Jan. 3. The galleries will be open Tuesdays and Wednesdays from noon to 6 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays, noon to 9 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Everson will be closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Tickets cost $10 to $15 and can be purchased by calling 474-6064 or visiting www.everson.org. So far, tickets are general admission, but if Kern deems it necessary, they will be dated and timed.
Gallery of works on display at the Everson
Photos at the show by Michael Davis
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