The new director of the Shelburne Museum has a background in American and New England studies; his dissertation at Boston University — and a subsequent book — examined 19th/early 20th-century furniture maker, photographer and antiquarian Wallace Nutting. So why is Thomas Denenberg psyched about the forthcoming contemporary art facility on the campus of the museum he joined just last November?
“A subset of my career is planning and completing capital projects and buildings,” Denenberg says during a recent interview in his office. “I’ve always known about the Shelburne in my professional work — I was a big fan of [the previous directors] and admired what they accomplished here. But the notion of getting a four-season museum is very exciting.”
Travelers on Route 7 just south of Shelburne village can’t help but notice that something big is going on — and it will get bigger. The just-initiated project involves dismantling and removing a row of small houses (owned by the museum) and replacing the stockade-style fence with a subtler black metal one for a dramatically different “relationship to the road,” suggests Denenberg. Behind that, the mid-century Kalkin House is coming down to make room for the forthcoming Center for Art and Education.
If the new kid’s name is understated, the significance of its family’s transition from a seasonal to a year-round institution cannot be overstated.
The Center, scheduled to open in September 2013, will enable the Shelburne to offer “first-class exhibitions and educational resources” to the community 12 months a year, says the museum’s website, noting that the development will fulfill founder Electra Havemeyer Webb’s vision for the place. The statement also acknowledges the need to update: “Guided by the past yet evolving for a new generation of visitors, Shelburne Museum is diversifying its exhibitions and public programs to keep the Museum vibrant in the 21st century.”
Asked about his own vision, Denenberg responds with some provocative rhetorical questions: “How do we participate and enhance all of our experiences with place and all these collections? How do we present Electra Havemeyer Webb’s journey? How do we connect people to why we feel right here?”
These are surely variations on thoughts all museum directors have as they move into an uncertain future; how does an institution based on the past remain relevant — and accessible — in a world with so much competition for people’s attention, time and wallets? Despite the Shelburne administration’s clear reverence for its founder and guiding spirit, moving forward is not only about “what would Electra say?,” as Denenberg puts it. He asks another question: “How do we have a big tent and make everyone feel comfortable in a museum?”
Creating what Denenberg calls “journeys” for people is “one of the principal jobs of a museum,” he suggests. Toward that end, the Shelburne’s new building will facilitate not just looking but doing: It will accommodate classes, talks and hands-on experiences with art in 2000 square feet of flexible classrooms and a 130-seat lecture and performance hall. As for exhibits in the center’s 5000 square feet of gallery space, the director hints that they will include photography and painting. And, as his predecessor Stephan Jost did, “We’ll be mining the collections and [doing] mashups with the contemporary world,” Denenberg says.
The Shelburne’s Center for Art and Education marks the fifth project that the director has worked on with architects Ann Beha Architects of Boston. “Since I met them, they’ve become the premier New England museum and institution architects,” Denenberg says. “It’s an unusual building; with the climate and humidity controls in the Northeast, you want to work with someone who’s done it before.”
Denenberg undertook one of those past projects during his last job, as deputy director and chief curator of the Portland Museum of Art in Maine; another at Connecticut’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, where he was curator of American decorative arts. Except for stints in North Carolina and Washington, D.C., Denenberg’s career has centered on the geography, culture and artistic traditions of New England. Typical of his scholarship is a talk he gave last month at the nearby All Souls Interfaith Gathering titled “Region as Nation: How the Image of New England Became Our National Landscape.”
Since moving to Vermont, Denenberg has gotten an unexpected education in a regional recreational tradition: snowmobiling.
At a recent media preview of the Shelburne’s 2012 exhibits, Denenberg waxed enthusiastic about “Snow Mobiles: Sleighs to Sleds,” the exhibit now installed on both floors of the museum’s Round Barn. Though the bulk of the season was planned before he arrived, Denenberg got to make this contribution, courtesy of a random windfall: “Someone called and said he had these vintage snowmobiles,” he said, and added, “There’s nothing scarier looking than a vintage snowmobile.” Indeed, the sneak peek at this all-Vermont collection confirmed Denenberg’s description: “Some of the 1950s ones look like big, metallic bugs.”
Paired with a smattering of the museum’s own sleighs and sleds, the exhibit repeats the curatorial “mashup” idea. Visitors can witness a continuum of design and functionality in the travel industry, from horse-drawn vehicles to postwar rescue rigs on runners to a sleek, logo-covered racing machine.
Last week, the Shelburne revealed two other exhibits to members of the media: Burlington sculptor Kat Clear’s trio of lifesize, recycled-metal elephants on parade outside the Circus Building, and “Man-Made Quilts: Civil War to the Present” — a selection of unique quilts created by fellas.
These and a handful of other exhibits will be on view when the museum opens to the public this Sunday. But the show Denenberg calls an “alternate universe” — “Time Machines: Robots, Rockets and Steampunk” — won’t open until June 16. Filled with “toys and textiles, decorative, graphic and fine art representing the Golden Age of sci-fi” along with works by contemporary artists, including Burlington claymeister John Brickels, this one is sure to be a crowd pleaser.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Denenberg and his staff are strategizing changes to the museum’s famous landscape — “how we present our gardens to people,” he says — contemplating the inevitable digitization of the vast collections; and talking “synergy” with two other stalwarts of the community: Shelburne Farms and the Shelburne Craft School. “‘Shelburne’ is shorthand for the three of us,” Denenberg suggests. Not least, of course, he’s also fundraising for the Center. (The building’s major donors will be announced in a ceremony on May 16.)
While visitors are admiring vintage Arctic Cats, quilts by wounded veterans and “futuristic” toys from the ’50s, staff will be scaring up the last few mil in a $14 million campaign for the very real future of the Shelburne Museum. “This spring,” Denenberg says, “we really start beating the drum.”
“Snow Mobiles: Sleighs to Sleds,” Kat Clear’s “Circus Elephants,” “Man-Made Quilts: Civil War to the Present” and other exhibits open on Spring Fest, Sunday, May 13, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at the Shelburne Museum. For more info and a complete schedule of events throughout the season, visit shelburnemuseum.org.