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The Commons
Photo 1

Calle Bailey

A selection of ceramic and stoneware vessels from the Tang, Song, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties (618-1644) that was donated to the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

The Arts

Ancient treasures

Brattleboro Museum receives gift of Chinese, pre-Colombian works from Sackler Collection

Originally published in The Commons issue #393 (Wednesday, February 1, 2017). This story appeared on page B1.


BRATTLEBORO—Danny Lichtenfeld, Director of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, believes that, at least in one way, science and natural history museums have it all over museums dedicated to fine art.

In science and natural history museums, he said, patrons can have an interactive experience, while the cardinal rule in spaces dedicated to fine art has always been: Look, but don’t touch.

“In the world of art museums, you don’t generally get to handle the artwork, let alone objects that are thousands of years old,” Lichtenfeld said. “This can make going to an art museum, especially for children, a less satisfying experience than a science museum.”

That’s about to change.

BMAC received an extraordinary gift a few weeks ago from the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation — 313 historical art objects that were collected over a period of 50 years by Sackler, a physician and philanthropist. The works include Ancient Near Eastern, Chinese, Korean, Byzantine, Islamic, and Pre-Columbian American ceramics, stoneware, earthenware, wood, bronze, gold, and textiles created between 2000 B.C.E. and 1850.

‘Meant to be touched’

The Sackler Foundation sought to donate the objects to a museum that would use them for hands-on, educational purposes, rather than simply display them in protective cases.

“They did not want these objects [to be] put away in some drawer and never see the light of day or at best be peered at under protective glass,” Lichtenfeld told The Commons. “Their goal was for them to be held and examined closely, just as their original collector, Arthur Sackler, himself did.”

Lichtenfeld adds in a news release, “These remarkable, millennia-old objects are actually meant to be touched and held, so that students and scholars can get a tactile sense of how they were made, and contemporary artists and craftspeople can draw inspiration from them.

“That made the gift a great fit for BMAC, because we are always seeking ways to make the museum experience more interactive — ways to say, ‘please touch,’ rather than ‘please don’t touch,’” he said. “Thanks to the Sackler Foundation, visitors to BMAC will soon have that very rare and exciting opportunity.”

“Where else can you touch and hold a ceramic jar that was originally touched and held by a Chinese potter over 4,000 years ago, or a gold belt buckle that was made during the reign of Julius Caesar?” asks BMAC Museum Educator Linda Whelihan. “These objects are going to bring art and history to life in ways that no textbook, photograph, or YouTube video can.”

The Arthur M. Sackler Foundation was established in 1965 by the late Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, to make his extensive collections accessible to scholars, students, and the general public. The foundation lends art from its collection to museums, organizes traveling exhibitions, and has published 11 scholarly catalogues of the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, and also maintains its photographic archives.

Brothers from Brooklyn

“The Sacklers were three brothers born in Brooklyn in the early 20th century who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to become successful doctors as well as major art collectors,” Lichtenfeld explains. “They have endowed museums, hospitals, and medical schools. When Arthur died in 1987, his family established a foundation to give and lend his collections to many worthy institutions.”

Mara Williams, chief curator for BMAC, says, “You can find Sackler collections in The Metropolitan Art Museum in New York, as well as other major museums all over the country.” She adds that the Sacklers have also donated art to many other places that do not have such high public profiles.

Founded in 1972, the BMAC previously had no permanent collection and isn’t dedicated to presenting antiquities. BMAC exhibits rotating shows of contemporary art, complemented by lectures, artist talks, film screenings, and other public programs.

So why should it be singled out for this remarkable gift from The Arthur M. Sackler Foundation?

One answer is having the right person at the right place. A BMAC board member, Kim Benzel, who is also the Acting Curator in Charge of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has been a longtime friend with members of the Sackler family.

Consequently, when the foundation was considering where to donate the collection, she suggested BMAC.

Benzel said that this gift “will open up exciting new avenues for BMAC visitors to explore the ways in which makers throughout history and across cultures have transformed raw materials into objects of beauty and meaning.”

Nonetheless, Lichtenfeld said, “Frankly, notwithstanding how intrinsically remarkable [the collection is], if BMAC did not envision the Sackler collection as part of our education program, we would not have accepted the gift. By itself, it did not fit our mission.”

“We are not a collecting museum,” Williams said. “However, because we could see these objects as part of both education and a means to offer perspective on the contemporary art we display, we saw the great potential for us they offered.”

Related programming

In the coming months, the board and staff of BMAC plan to work with school teachers, artists, and museum professionals to develop an initial set of programs involving the Sackler objects.

Lichtenfeld expects that the objects will begin to be incorporated into BMAC’s work with area schools in the fall, and that some objects will be integrated into an exhibit scheduled to open at the museum in October.

“Eventually,” he said, “we envision robust educational programs with strong K-12 curriculum connections, an artist-in-residence program, demonstrations, workshops, exhibits, and more."

In the near term, however, BMAC officials are simply excited about getting the Sackler objects into the hands of visitors, especially schoolchildren.

The general public will get a chance to see them when some objects will be integrated into an exhibit scheduled to open at the museum in October.

Williams believes that the curating possibilities with the Sackler Collection are many and very exciting. Although she isn’t exactly sure how they will be employed in the fall, Williams explained how she may use the object in a contemporary art show.

For instance, if she were curating a textile show, as she did last year, she could employ a piece of ancient fabric from the collection as a point of contrast with a contemporary work.

“A contemporary artist might reference, say, a bowl, and we could juxtapose her work with a bowl from antiquity to complement her vision,” Williams said. “Often contemporary artists use an ancient motif to do a modern reinterpretation, for a strong facet of modern art is the transformation of historical techniques.

“Artists make connections that hark back to ancient techniques and history. Beyond even that, there is the often personal national heritage of an artist, say, one with Middle Eastern ancestry who could find his lineage with an ancient artifact from Syria.”

Expansion on the horizon?

With all this new activity added to its ongoing commitment to presenting rotating exhibits of contemporary art, BMAC is eventually likely to require more space than is currently available in the museum’s Union Station building.

With that in mind, the museum is evaluating the possibility of converting the boarded-up industrial building at 11 Arch Street, which the museum acquired from Green Mountain Power in December 2015, into a home for the Sackler objects and the various new programs to which they may give rise.

Although much of this is still in the planning stage and dependent upon the potential of fundraising for the space, BMAC envisions one day hosting artist residencies in the Arch Street building in conjunction with the Sackler Collection.

“We would like to create a work space there for artists and craftsmen,” Williams said. “For instance, we could invite an artist working in metal or glass to use the Sackler Collection to create new work that was inspired by its jewelry, pottery, or whatever we have. The artists may produce work during the residency, but also perhaps teach a class for experts in their field, and others for the general public.”

The staff at BMAC are only just beginning to fathom all that can be done with the Sackler Collection.

Williams put it simply: “Without changing our mission, these objects will enable us to extend our reach while still doing what we always have done: presenting art that is both instructive and enjoyable.”

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