Inside the late-1700s rooms of Norfolk's historic Willoughby-Baylor House, curator Alex Mann of the
Instead of simply packing up all the works in the museum's nationally known American art collection during its $24 million expansion and renovation project, he kept 50 things out. Then he moved them from the Chrysler's stately galleries to the smaller, much more domestic spaces that had once served as the entrance hall, main living room, stair hall and bed chambers of the Willoughby-Baylor.
What resulted in the case of such modestly sized canvases as Thomas Hovenden's 1882 portrait of an African-American banjo player — which used to hang much higher in a far larger and even palatial space — was a new appreciation for the depth and sensitivity of this meticulously rendered likeness as well as a keener feel for the rapport that had grown up between the artist and his oft-painted neighbor.
"I've had a number of people come up to me, look at one of the paintings here and say, 'I've never seen it before,'" Mann says, describing one of the common responses to the exhibit.
"But in reality it was always there and had just been overlooked."
Made up of more than 4,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and works of decorative art, the Chrysler's American collection was often overlooked itself until it won a $210,000 matching grant from the Luce Foundation in the early 2000s.
That's when chief curator Jefferson C. Harrison and project curator Martha N. Hagood began studying the museum's holdings in a concentrated 4-year-long effort that built upon and then greatly expanded the work carried out by such previous curators as H. Nichols B. Clark and his wife, the late Trinkett Clark.
What resulted was the discovery of so many hidden and overlooked treasures that the museum not only revamped its American art galleries completely but also assembled 163 of the best works in a glossy new book designed to draw national attention.
"We knew we had a number of American works that were important. But I don't think anybody had really looked at the entire collection. Even the major works hadn't been examined, researched and documented in the way that we did," Harrison said in 2005, describing the unsuspected depth and significance of the American collection given to the museum by its namesake — Walter P. Chrysler Jr. — some 35 years before.
"What we came to realize pretty quickly was that — often hidden in plain sight — we had many great, classic examples of American painting. And among these things, many of them are extraordinary."
Such newly won recognition is one of the primary reasons why Mann, who came to the Chrysler in late 2011, argued so persuasively to keep as many of his best works on view as possible when the museum closed its building for construction at the beginning of the year.
Equally important was his interest in exploring the impact of bringing viewers and artworks together in such a different kind of space — plus the idea of creating juxtapositions and conversations between works that hadn't been seen before.
"Right there you're looking at one of the best and most important works in our collection — and I think it looks better here than it did in the museum," he says, pointing to pioneering American painter
"It's an 18th-century portrait, and now — for the first time in who knows how many years — you can see it in the kind of 18th-century domestic space for which it was intended. That makes it much more intimate and approachable."
Among the many other works that take on impressive new life here is Walt Kuhn's vibrant 1934 female figure study "American Beauty."
Measuring some 51/2 feet across, this scantily clad reclining show girl already looked big stretched out across the walls of the Chrysler itself. But here the impact of all that skin, strident color and heavy black outline is even more impressive.
"She's almost too big for this space — and that makes her almost confrontational," Mann says.
"Look how big she is. Look how bold Kuhn's colors are.
"In a room this size, you can't get away from her."
Erickson can be reached at email@example.com and 757-247-4783. Find him at dailypress.com/entertainment/arts and Facebook.com/dpentertainment.
Want to go?
"American Treasures on View at the Willoughby-Baylor House"
Where: 601 E. Freemason St., Norfolk
When: Noon-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday through November 2013, with guided talks at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Info: 757-664-6200; http://www.chrysler.org