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The Shelburne Museum Reaches Out to eBay

State of the Arts


Published May 8, 2007 at 8:42 p.m.

Bruce Lee action figure with Game of Death suit? A Scooby-Doo tissue box cover? An Executioner High Performance bug zapper? You can find just about anything on eBay. And at the Shelburne Museum this summer, you'll be able to see what eight "celebrities and art-world experts" collected from the wildly popular online auction site in an ingenious new exhibit that opens May 20.

The brainchild of Director Stephan Jost, "Got eBay?" went like this: Find, from "friends of friends of friends" a group of individuals - some of them famous - willing to participate; give them $1000 to spend on eBay; have their purchases (minimum two each) sent to the museum, along with a "collector's statement"; display each set of objects as a mini collection in the former horse stalls of the Round Barn. At the end of the exhibition, sell off the objects - on eBay, of course.

Like many a curatorial experience, this one is down to the wire. Last Friday, museum Marketing & Communitcations Manager Sam Ankerson greeted a reporter's 'sup with this: "I'm trying to figure out how to set up a PayPal account for Bianca Jagger." Yep, that would be Mick's ex. Guess she travels a lot, and her eBay transactions had yet to be made. Jagger is one of the museum's better-known instant art collectors in a lineup that also includes comedian Jerry Seinfeld, musician John Lurie, NASCAR driver and Shelburne native Kevin LePage, Vermont Governor Jim Douglas and some cognoscenti from the art and design world.

As of last week, too, Seinfeld's collection had yet to arrive, but Ankerson assured, "It has something to do with his interest in Porsches." Lounge Lizards founder Lurie, who is also a visual artist and, apparently, a bit of a comedian himself, bought two of his own prints, which he had previously posted on eBay, and some postcards. LePage acquired a motley assortment of items that, Ankerson suggested, "reflect his own interests, such as sports. The miscellany includes a 1960s brochure from the Shelburne Museum itself.

And what, Vermonters may wonder, did our guv collect? Vermont memorabilia, much of it to do with politics. Didn't ask if it was all Republican.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most artful collections came from experts in the field. A pair of designers from Martha Stewart Living magazine took a predictably decorative approach to their shared task: Some 50 to 60 rocks, petrified wood and other geological specimens arrived with a chart specifying how the objects are to be arranged. "It's color-coordinated," Ankerson notes.

New York art collector Beth DeWoody acquired some Lucite - that is, transparent - furniture for an installation she's calling "Invisible Room." It will be dedicated, Ankerson explained, to DeWoody's fiancé, who passed away in the middle of this project.

This is the only melancholy note in an otherwise playful exhibit that illustrates the serendipity - and sometimes singleminded obsession - of the art of collecting. "Got eBay?" also connects the Shelburne Museum's famous, folkier fare with contemporary interests and technology.

With this exhibit, Director Jost acknowledges that the human urge to acquire, categorize and display things in groups is universal and ongoing - hence the enormous success of eBay, which pre-sorts the stuff without spoiling the fun of the find. But the exhibit is also purposely planned to lure new, and repeat, viewers to the museum. "Some Vermonters think they've 'done the Shelburne,'" laments Jost, with a look that combines incredulity and a determination to convince them otherwise. In fact, none of us has seen all 150,000 items in the vintage collections, never mind the newer shows. But seasonal hooks such as "Got eBay?" and "Chandelirious!" - this year's brilliant installation of quirky, contemporary chandeliers - are aimed to ensure that the Shelburne doesn't become, well, history.