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Huntsville exhibit features American women artists

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David Stewart is thrilled. An art history professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, he will no longer have to send his students out of town to see stellar examples of major American art movements.

And because the artists are American women, people will come here to see the Huntsville Museum of Art’s new acquisition — Art by American Women: The Sellars Collection — pieces of which went on view Sept. 20. The exhibit of more than 90 works will be on display through Nov. 8.

“It’s definite that people are going to come to Huntsville to see this,” said Stewart as he congratulated museum curator Peter Baldaia on the exhibit.

More than 100 people recently came to hear Baldaia discuss the museum’s acquisition of the more than 400 works of art that span a period from the mid-19th century to 1940. The works cover many major art movements of the 90-year period.

The collection, purchased for an undisclosed amount, includes 250 oil paintings, 150 works on paper, and eight bronze sculptures and is the largest known collection of American art by women in the world.

“This is truly a redefining moment for the museum,” Baldaia said.

Many of the artists were the wives, sisters and daughters of famous artists of their time. Some received recognition and awards at the time; many trained at art academies, and all pioneered the way for women artists who followed, Baldaia said.

“This was not a hobby. They had careers and exhibitions,” he said. “They were as serious as their male counterparts” about their work.

But, their names are little known outside the art world. There is Lizzie Duveneck, the daughter of an upper-crust Boston family, who had a tumultuous marriage to the painter Frank Duveneck and died shortly after having a baby boy.

Susan Ricker Knox’s paintings at Ellis Island influenced political discussions on immigration in the 1920s. Olive Rush’s portraits of American Indians in New Mexico led her to move to Sante Fe, where she taught mural painting.

Fortunately for Huntsville, one man decided to collect their work. Alan Sellars was a collector of all kinds of things, some of which he sold from the gift shop attached to his hardware store in Marietta, Ga.

He originally bought the works of male artists. As he collected, however, he began to find works by women of the time, many with the same last names as the male artists. Their work was often superior and much less expensive to buy.

“He was so impressed with the work and felt he could amass a collection,” which he did between 1983 and his death in 1991, Baldaia said.

His daughter, Sue Rice, inherited the collection, which she stored in her modest home in Indianapolis until deciding to sell the collection.

Clayton Bass, the museum’s president and CEO, was familiar with the works, and he and Baldaia made a trip to Indiana in 2007 to look at the collection. It was in excellent shape, well-documented and something Baldaia saw as being a help to the museum on many levels.

It would expand the permanent collection, which has mostly consisted of contemporary pieces the museum could afford to buy; it contained excellent examples of major art movements; and it was something other museums would be interested in exhibiting. Each time those works travel, Huntsville’s name will go with them, Baldaia said.

Huntsville was also the size museum Rice wanted to have the works her father had so carefully collected. Having the works in a museum elevates the collection to a new level of importance. It also provides a place where art historians can study the works, as Baldaia predicts will happen.

“People who are interested in American women’s art, they’ll come to us,” Baldaia said. “This will put Huntsville on the map in a way we haven’t been.”

Information from: The Huntsville Times, http://www.al.com/huntsville

© 2009 Associated Press. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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