International exhibit opens

Oct. 2, 2009 at 5:02 a.m.

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Wearing sky blue surgical gloves, a team at the Jepson Center for the Arts carefully opens a reusable yellow metal case, called a "turtle," which is used to ship precious cargo around the globe.

The team works in well-choreographed synchronicity to peel off strips of black tape and remove layers of bubble wrap. Ultimately, they reveal a majestic pastel-hued landscape painting by William Henry Singer Jr., an American artist who worked in Laren, Holland, in the early 20th century.

The 1912 oil painting, titled "In My Garden, Spring," is one of six works of art that arrived from the Singer Laren Museum in Holland recently and now hang on the gallery walls at the Jepson Center as part of "Dutch Utopia: American Artists In Holland, 1880-1914."

This landmark exhibit, which opened Thursday, marks the first major attempt to explore the phenomenon of American artists working in Holland around the turn of the century. Organized by the Telfair Museum of Art in association with the Singer Laren Museum, "Dutch Utopia" also has the distinction of being the Telfair's most ambitious show and the institution's first traveling exhibit to be showcased in Europe.

"The more we develop relationships with museum institutions across the globe," said Steven High, director of the Telfair Museum of Art, "the easier it becomes to collaborate and share scholarship and artwork, and to develop new exhibitions for the future."

"Dutch Utopia" focuses on 43 American artists who lived and worked in Holland between 1880 and the dawn of World War I. During that time, hundreds of artists traveled from the United States to Holland to paint the landscape and study the art of Dutch Old Masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer.

Of the 73 works of art in the exhibit, 17 have been borrowed from five European countries — a record for the Telfair. Highlights include Gari Melchers' "The Family" from the National Gallery in Berlin, George Hitchcock's "Maternite" from the Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums in Scotland and George Henry Boughton's "Weeding the Pavement" from the Tate in London.

The largest shipment of art, from the Singer Laren Museum, serves as the "heart and soul" of the "Dutch Utopia" exhibit. This delivery includes paintings by Martin Borgord, Richard E. Henry and William Henry Singer Jr., all of whom worked in Holland around the turn of the century.

"The works coming to Savannah from the Singer's collection are important to the exhibition because they represent the diverse stylistic approaches of American artists within a single colony," said Holly Koons McCullough, chief curator of fine arts and exhibitions at the Telfair.

In order for Savannah to see the art, the Telfair, European lenders and international counterparts took part in a dance of sorts, requesting pieces for the exhibit, securing transportation and ensuring the safety of the paintings. There were even language barriers.

The lengthy process began in 2005.

McCullough spearheaded the process of borrowing works of art from international museums. The Telfair was required to submit paperwork, including documentation regarding the temperature and humidity levels of the galleries at the Jepson Center.

"Certainly, we had some challenges in making the initial loan requests," McCullough said. "There were a few pieces for which we had to launch extended campaigns of persuasion. There were several cases in which loan requests were granted, but only on the condition that we paid for conservation of the requested work or its original frame."

Organizing the delivery schedules and courier arrangements also was a formidable task. Working across borders, time zones and languages occasionally proved difficult.

"The language barrier was sometimes a challenge," McCullough said. "The European lenders expected us to sign off on legal documents in their own languages, so translation became an issue. One lender, in particular, always communicated in French, prompting us to turn to a dedicated and fluent museum volunteer who spent many hours translating documents and e-mails."

Linda Berendse, conservator and curator at the Singer Laren Museum, has served as a key liaison with the Telfair team during the shipping process. Part of her job involves ensuring that works lent to the Telfair remain in pristine condition.

"As long as the transport is in the hands of professionals, there are not a lot of problems," she said. "We make condition reports before packing the work in crates. Before and after each transport, the condition of the works will be checked again."

When shipping priceless works of art thousands of miles, a courier who travels with the pieces and observes the uncrating and installation process is essential, she said.

The paintings arrived in Savannah, carefully packed in wooden crates, shipped by Masterpiece International, a freight company specializing in the transportation of rare and valuable items.

All of the art on loan from international museums arrives with specially-dedicated couriers in tow, who travel with the paintings from Europe and oversee the installation process in the galleries at the Jepson Center.

"This artwork is all quite valuable and needs to be handled very carefully," said Telfair Museum of Art registrar Jessica Mumford, who oversees the logistics of crating, packing, insuring and shipping the art. "Some of these works have never been shown in the United States before. We're lucky to have them."

Upon arrival in Savannah, the crates had to sit for 24 hours before being unpacked, in order to adjust to changes in temperature and humidity levels. Couriers ensure that no paintings are damaged at any stage of the process.

The "Dutch Utopia" exhibit also will feature a series of related programs, including a special lecture series.

High says he believes that this Holland-themed exhibit will boost the museum's standing in the art world.

"An exhibition like 'Dutch Utopia,' organized by the Telfair and traveling to other venues in the U.S. and abroad, will elevate the visibility of the Telfair on a national and international level," High said. "The exhibit will attract art viewers to Savannah and will certainly elevate the prestige of the institution through the creative treatment of its understudied subject and strong scholarship published in the catalogue."

After its debut in Savannah, "Dutch Utopia" will travel to the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., and the Singer Laren Museum.

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Information from: Savannah Morning News, http://www.savannahnow.com

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