Local Treasure | George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum
Photo Courtesy of George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum
Headaches come in all shapes and sizes. If you’re a curator for the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, you’ll know that some even come adorned with Tiffany stained-glass windows.
Step inside the opulent Italianate building on the Springfield, Massachusetts, Quadrangle and you’ll be greeted by medieval Asian armor in one gallery, Renaissance sculptures in another; upstairs you’ll find a choice selection of American landscapes and Chinese cloisonne vases. The quality of the works and artifacts is superb, but they also pose one major problem: These collections don’t have much in common.
As museums have professionalized over the last century, most small institutions have narrowed their focus because they have the space to tell only a few stories well. But the Smith is a relic of another era. Here curators are tasked with assembling a jigsaw with pieces from a dozen different puzzles.
When George Walter Vincent Smith made the decision to donate his private collection to Springfield in 1889, it wasn’t his intention to leave behind such a conundrum. Much like Isabella Stewart Gardner, Smith had a vision. He oversaw the design of the building over the next six years and arranged his works of art in ways he found pleasing. In one room he might display Japanese swords next to Middle Eastern rugs and Hudson River School paintings. It didn’t matter that the works had nothing in common historically. For Smith, the common thread was that they looked beautiful together.
“It wasn’t a scholarly approach,” explains Kay Simpson, vice president of the Springfield Museums. Smith believed that simply viewing art was “morally uplifting.” His goal wasn’t to teach visitors about foreign cultures or art history, but to create a space so striking that it would transform those who entered it: “He felt that he had the sensibility of a connoisseur and that only he could orchestrate all of these aesthetic arrangements.”
It’s a nightmarishly romantic approach by modern standards, so, after his death, Smith’s collection was untangled and reordered by era and origin. That might have been a mistake, though. The Smith’s curators are currently debating ways to reinterpret the museum, and one of the proposed options is to restore some of the galleries to the founder’s original design. The theory is that perhaps the only way to make sense of these confusing collections is to view them in the context of their collector. That means giving at least passing credence to his radically old-fashioned philosophy: that sometimes beauty is the sole purpose of art.
21 Edwards St., Springfield, MA. 800-625-7738; springfieldmuseums.org