Great thoughts: Electra Webb’s Shelburne Museum

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(Host) The Great Thoughts of Vermont commentary series examines how ideas have shaped our state. Commentator Madeleine Kunin saysof Electra Havemeyer Webb’s interest in folk art has preserved past traditions and taught people new ways of defining art.

(Kunin) The beauty of simple, handcrafted, everyday objects is recognized today as folk art, mainly in thanks to the passionate collecting of one woman, Electra Havemeyer Webb, founder of the Shelburne Museum in 1947.

Daughter of a 19th century sugar baron, she was raised in a family that was renounced renowned for its art collection. Her mother was famous for her collection of impressionists, most of which can be seen in the Metropolitan museum of art. But Electra chose a different path, focusing on simple objects and entire buildings. She thought nothing of bringing structures to her museum, which now includes a light house, a blacksmith’s shop, a steamship, a country store and a beautiful round barn. Her collection of collections, as she called it, included 80,000 objects; today that figure is 180,000.

What made her deviate from her parents’ taste for high art, and concentrate on the simplicity of folk art, which started a new and important trend in the world of collectors? She wrote: “As we rode (while fox hunting) over the countryside, we would say to each other, ‘There is a lovely old house,’ or “Look at that old barn falling down and the hand-hewn beams left out to rot.” Or we would feel so badly at an old house deserted and forgotten. All this made me think more and more, what fun it would be to restore buildings.”

It’s clear that she had a good eye for beauty, whether it was found in a hand stitched quilt or the graceful lines of a carriage. As a result, the museum has the finest early carriage collection in the United States and some 400 quilts. Her father gave her permission to chart her own course when he told her, “Electra, if you feel something is right, be sure your have the courage of carrying out your convictions. And remember – nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Folk art, as Electra Havemeyer Webb defined it, is democratic art. It is a direct result of the work of untaught men and women who made useful things, like weathervanes, that are beautiful because they have a certain directness and simplicity and relate to their surroundings. Folk art is also American art. It does not have the gloss of European paintings, but it has a value of its own because it tells us who we are as a people, whether we see that image in a cigar store Indian or a delightful doll house.

Thanks to the vision and determination of Electra Havemeyer Webb, who once said, “I had the happiest times almost in my life at Shelburne,” Vermont has an extraordinary museum and the nation has learned to treasure the beauty and value of work that was done by the rough hands of people who never knew that they were making art.

Madeleine Kunin is a former governor of Vermont. Learn more about the Great Thoughts of Vermont series and share your comments with other listeners.

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