Mary Hunt Kahlenberg dies at 71; museum textile curator
Mary Hunt Kahlenberg, an authority on antique and ethnographic textiles and a former curator and head of the Department of Costume and Textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has died. She was 71.
Kahlenberg, the longtime co-owner of Textile Arts Inc., an art gallery in Santa Fe, N.M., died of carcinoid cancer Thursday at her home in Santa Fe, said her husband, Rob Coffland.
Over the last five decades, Kahlenberg traveled extensively around the world learning about and searching for textiles. Her specialties were Indonesian and Japanese textiles and, closer to home, 19th century Navajo blankets.
Textiles meant everything to Kahlenberg, her husband said.
“Mary loved the encoded history, she loved the textures, the colors, the technique, the feel of the object in the hand, the sense of the maker,” he said. “I mean it just goes on — and always with the eye of the connoisseur: Does it engage the mind and the heart?
“Mary wanted to have textiles seen as art.”
As curator and head of the textile and costume department at the county art museum from 1968 to 1978, Kahlenberg was the curator of more than 25 exhibitions and installations.
Exhibitions in the 1970s included the “Navajo Blanket,” “Textile Traditions of Indonesia” and “L.A. Flash,” an audiovisual presentation exploring how people in various Los Angeles neighborhoods dressed.
“I thought she was a remarkable woman with impeccable taste, who during her tenure curated a wide range of interesting exhibitions, including the first museum exhibition of Indonesia textiles,” said Sharon S. Takeda, senior curator and head of the museum’s textiles department.
“She made very astute selections in building the permanent collection, including a Ballets Russes costume collection, the John Wise collection of pre-Columbian textiles and the Heeramaneck collection of Islamic textiles.”
After leaving the county art museum in 1978, Kahlenberg launched Textile Arts Inc. in Los Angeles and became the private curator for Lloyd E. Cotsen, then-president of Neutrogena Corp. who amassed an extensive collection of textiles and folk art from around the world.
“The passing of Mary Hunt Kahlenberg touches many of us, including myself,” Cotsen said in a statement to The Times on Monday. “She opened windows to our lives in terms of textile art. Mary not only was a most knowledgeable person but a really good friend.”
Kahlenberg was involved in numerous books as an author, contributor or editor, including “Walk in Beauty: The Navajo and Their Blankets” and “The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Textiles and Objects From the Collections of Lloyd Cotsen and the Neutrogena Corp.”
Her final book, “Five Centuries of Indonesian Textiles,” which she edited with Ruth Barnes, was published in 2010 and won the George Wittenborn Memorial Book Award.
Kahlenberg was born in Meriden, Conn., on Oct. 19, 1940, and grew up in Wallingford.
She later recalled playing in her family’s attic as a young girl and coming across a hatbox filled with old ribbons of various colors and textures.
“I became very enamored of those ribbons and all of the old clothes that hung around in the attic,” she said in a 2010 interview with the Santa Fe New Mexican. “I give credit to those materials for my interest in textiles, which started very young, making doll clothes and collecting little scraps of things here and there.”
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in art history from Boston University in 1962, she did graduate study at the Austrian Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna, the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, the Master School of Crafts in Berlin and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Before her tenure at the L.A. County art museum, Kahlenberg was assistant curator at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.
She and Coffland, her second husband, moved to Santa Fe in 1986.
Even after she was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, Kahlenberg continued to travel, making her last trip to Indonesia in December 2010.
In addition to her husband, she is survived by her sister, Nancy Barnes.
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