Deep inside the catacombs of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, members of the Decorative Arts Trust have been quietly accumulating a treasure trove of domestic goodies for the city. Maybe it’s time we all started paying more attention.
“Decorative Arts Trust.” Those three words don’t exactly roll off your tongue, do they? When you hear them, your first thought is that maybe this is something your recently deceased uncle left you in his will, maybe in a safe-deposit box in Switzerland. (One can always hope . . .)
But Memphis’ Decorative Arts Trust is a lot less stuffy than its old-fashioned name might indicate. For one thing, the primary reason for its existence is to collect and preserve really cool stuff — furniture, porcelain, silver, textiles — used in the past for functional purposes or decorative effect around the home (or castle). For another, the Trust brings together some of the most well-informed and passionate collectors of antiques in the region, for a magnificent public purpose. After all, the major goal of “The DAT” — as the group is affectionately known by its 350 current members — is to ensure that as much of this historic domestic treasure is preserved for future generations, right here in Memphis, and for everyone’s viewing pleasure, right here at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
The back story is that the organization’s 57 founders formed the DAT just over 30 years ago to create an endowment that would allow the museum to acquire decorative objects to supplement its fine-arts collection. The Trust also works to encourage private donations that enrich the museum’s permanent collection and to develop potential sources of loan items to feature in exhibitions.
While the founding group consisted primarily of collectors, designers, and decorators, the DAT has always been open to anyone with an interest in domestic art, and today boasts members of all ages and all walks of life. What they have in common is an appreciation for the transforming power of beauty.
You might wonder exactly what distinguishes the “decorative arts” from the “fine arts.” If you saw the news last year about that 16-inch Qing dynasty vase unearthed in a dusty English attic, the one that sold at auction for an amazing hammer price of $69.5 million — well, that’s the decorative arts! Such pieces are material expressions of life and attitudes in the past that resonate with historical and aesthetic significance. They encompass all artistic works created for functional use and decoration by skilled artisans, whether in metal, stone, wood, ceramics, or glass, as well as textiles including quilts, coverlets, and tapestries. In this category also are aspects of interior design such as molded plasterwork, wallpaper, furniture, and draperies. Personal objects such as jewelry, tools, and costumes are also considered part of the decorative arts.
DAT Selection Committee members constantly pore over piles of weighty auction catalogues to make up “wish lists” for the museum. Each purchase or donation is recommended to the DAT Board by this committee, and in turn must be accepted by the Brooks Museum’s own selection committee and/or curators. Through the efforts of the Trust, the Brooks has acquired a host of beautiful objects for exhibition — far too many to name here. Among the acquisitions: the circa-1815 cylinder-front desk currently on display in the museum’s American galleries. Other beautiful pieces of furniture donated by the DAT in recent years include a sideboard sugar chest from Wilson County, Tennessee, and an early nineteenth-century walnut food safe — a sophisticated example of a simple country form. Courtesy of the Trust, visitors to the museum can also view American and English silver ewers, French art glass, German stained glass, a Spanish processional cross, and Nonconnah earthenware.
Not long ago, I had the privilege of enjoying a lunchtime chat at the Brushmark Restaurant in the Brooks with several key DAT members, including Tom Lee, Nancy Willis, John Tackett, and W. Robert Brown. We were joined by Cameron Kitchin, the director of the Brooks, and Stanton Thomas, curator of European and decorative art and principal liaison between the Trust and the museum staff. The enthusiasm of this group was positively contagious. After lunch, we toured the galleries and then descended to the storage facilities in the basement to see the latest exciting acquisition, an oak painted chest from Devon in England dating to 1672.
Cameron Kitchin was very candid about what the DAT means to the Brooks. “While the museum has resources for public programs, it could never accomplish such specialized programs without the help of the DAT.” He continued: “Any museum would be proud to have a group like the Trust associated with it.” In fact, Kitchin recalls that when he arrived at the Brooks several years back, one of the “first and nicest phone calls” he received was from Tom Lee, who said to him, “Let me tell you about the DAT.” As a result of the group’s generosity, Kitchin says the Brooks is able to proceed more quickly than many other art museums towards “mining this incredible area of strength” and increasing decorative arts acquisitions and folding them into the traditional fine-arts museum’s collection.
Originally the Brooks had a relatively small, though distinguished, collection of decorative items, consisting mostly of ceramics and glass. However, the real turning point in its expansion, according to Kitchin, came in 1987 when Julie Isenberg, due to the influence of the DAT, changed her will to leave her “small but superb” furniture collection to the Brooks rather than to the U.S. Department of State.
Kitchin calls the Brooks “an encyclopedic institution,” emphasizing that all of its displayed objects “have a purpose, which is education, not merely warehousing.” The items donated by the Decorative Arts Trust have proven to be “a veritable embarrassment of riches,” according to Kitchin, which in turn speaks to the institution’s pressing need for more exhibition space.
The DAT has also had significant influence upon recent exhibition planning for the museum. Curator Stanton Thomas this spring is putting together an exciting show titled “A Taste for China” (March 26th -June 12th). It will draw heavily upon the DAT’s resources, as well as private and public collections, to explore the West’s centuries-long fascination with Chinese art and culture, and will include a diverse selection of objects, ranging from fine porcelain to a jade mummy suit.
Tom Lee and Bob Brown, both original founders and driving forces of the DAT, paid homage to others who were influential figures in the group from the beginning, in particular John McWhorter and Roland Gerhardt. Lee himself is a well-known collector with a passion for Chinese armorial porcelain. Brown is a professor of European history at the University of Memphis, and a lover of pre-1700 decorative arts, with a particular interest in early English oak furniture. John Tackett, a local architect specializing in classic residential design, is the current president of the Trust, and Nancy Willis is a past president now serving as vice-president and membership chair.
The DAT’s programs are aimed at both beginning and advanced decorative arts collectors and enthusiasts. The group sponsors exhibitions, gallery visits, symposia, lectures by local as well as nationally and internationally known speakers, tours of Memphis’ finest homes and gardens, and trips to locations of special interest to Trust members. An occasional newsletter, Lagniappe, and an annual membership directory are sent to all members. The group has an exclusive relationship with the Royal Oak Foundation, which is the American wing of the National Trust of Great Britain, and hosts an annual speaker from the foundation. The DAT also has a special program designed to help build the Brooks Museum’s library holdings.
Over the years, the Trust has brought to Memphis many “heavy-hitters” from the world of interior design. This past September, Bunny Williams, the famous New York designer (and author of Bunny Williams’ Point of View, An Affair with a House, and On Garden Style), lectured and signed her books at the Brooks. “She creates interiors that are as comfortable as they are stylish,” says John Tackett, who once worked alongside Williams at Parish-Hadley in New York. As a follow-up to her Memphis visit, DAT members will have the really special opportunity to visit Williams’ home in Connecticut as part of a group trip scheduled for early June. Sorry to say, there is already a waiting list for this great event.
But this event is only one of many. This past January, courtesy of the DAT, and co-sponsored by the Institute of Classical Architecture, world-renowned architect, designer, and author Bobby McAlpine came to the Brooks to make a presentation and to sign his new book, The Home Within Us. McAlpine has been universally applauded for creating idyllic homes that link historical precedent with gracious modern living. His designs can be seen in homes throughout America, including several in Memphis.
For the record, Gail George is current program chair, and a host of lecture events are on the DAT calendar, including Victoria Kastner on the building of the Hearst Castle; design in film, discussed by Tennessean Cathy Whitlock, who has a soon-to-be-released book on the subject; a tour of homes in the West Cherry/Tuckahoe neighborhood; and a talk by Katherine Pearson, former editor-in-chief of Southern Accents magazine.
This past fall and winter, the Trust presented an extremely popular and inexpensive series of five master classes: watches and clocks, by Ann Huckaba; Chinese export porcelain, presented by Melinda Bagley; twentieth-century architect-designed furniture and decorative arts, by James Murray, AIA; antiquarian book collecting, by Kay Liles; and the history of Art Deco, by Charles Kistler.
To be sure, many DAT members are “pros”: architects, interior designers, and collectors with fine-tuned, sophisticated interests and tastes. But many others have joined for the sheer fun of learning more about the decorative arts, and for the opportunity to peek behind the gates of wonderful homes and gardens right here in Memphis, as well as to take trips farther afield, such as to the winter antiques show in New York, to Nashville’s antiques and garden show, and even to London’s Chelsea flower show.
The good news is that new members are always welcome. The Trust’s website www.decorativeartstrust.com is a rich source of information on upcoming events and levels of membership (donor, sponsor, patron, business patron, family, individual, and student affiliate). While some similar support groups are associated with museums around the country, the DAT has a uniquely affordable dues structure (as little as $75 annually for an individual), and it also offers lectures that are free to the public with museum admission. What’s more, the group has become famous for its lively hospitality and enthusiastic camaraderie.
For more information on the DAT, go to brooksmuseum.org/decorativeartstrust.