Home / Fall Table of Contents / High Art Places The Bath, 1890-91, Mary Cassatt. The Art Institute of Chicago
Judy Barter '91G cocks her head and thoughtfully studies the work on the wall before her: Mary Cassatt's oil painting After the Bullfight.
"That won't do," she says decisively. "The palette is too high-key." The scarlet cape and bright white blouse of the toreador conflict with the earth tones of Winslow Homer's dark Coast of Maine, which hangs adjacent. After the Bullfight is carefully removed, and another Cassatt, the drypoint and aquatint The Bath, is put in its place.
"Well, I still don't like it," says Barter, critically. "But it'll do for now," she says. "Next week we'll re-hang this entire wall."
Barter is the Field-McCor-mick Curator of American Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the premier art museums in the country. She took charge in 1992 of the Art Institute's four-thousand-object collection of pre-World War I American painting and sculpture and American decorative art of all periods. And on this autumn day, with the help of assistant curator Andrew Walker and research assistant Jennifer Downs, she is busy rotating her stock.
The Bath replaces Eastman Johnson's Husking Bee, Nantucket, now on loan to the Brooklyn Art Museum. Next week's re-hanging will bring back more works by Cassatt and by John Singer Sargent that have also been out on loan. Two Cassatt oils, for example, have just returned from the National Gallery in Washington: the final venue of last year's three-city tour of Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman, the highly praised retrospective curated by Barter. The subtitle was inspired by a lost mural of that name produced by Cassatt for the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1892.
Judith Barter is one of a small handful of senior curators
in major museums whose Ph.D.s are not in art history. She
chose a doctoral program in social and cultural history at
UMass, she says, so she could continue as associate director of Amherst College's Mead Art Museum while pursuing her education. "There's no public art history Ph.D. in New England," explains Barter. "I couldn't afford to give up my job, nor could I afford Yale or Harvard." The UMass history program allowed her to focus her studies on the arts and, coupled with her master's degree in art history from the University of Illinois, prepared her well for her current domain.
Returning home to Chicago, just a few miles from the city's western suburbs where she was born, Barter found a robust art scene and a dedicated community of art patrons proud of their institute. (Membership in the institute, which includes both a museum and school and which moved in 1893 into a grand Beaux-Art building structure built for the Columbian Exposition, is 150,000-strong.)
She immediately applied her stamp to the American Arts galleries, removing the old "rabbit's warren" of walled nooks and hallways to create an open flow of rooms. She also reduced the number of objects on display by 20 per cent, giving space to only the best in the collection and eliminating redundancy. "I wanted the works on view to be extraordinary rather than ordinary," she says.
Today the 35,000 square-foot exhibition space is airy and accessible, and on a gloomy Monday, a day of the week when art museums are typically closed to the public bustling with activity. The Art Institute is open seven days a week 363 days a year: "A Chicago tradition," says Barter, as she and her staff fret over the placement of artwork. Visitors wander through the galleries apparently indifferent to the work in progress.
Once the galleries were reinvigorated, Barter turned to the project that would occupy her for the next four years, a reexamination of the oft-neglected American artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). The Pittsburgh-born Cassatt not only forged a successful career in the male-dominated art world of late nineteenth-century Paris, she was the only American ever invited to exhibit with the then-avante-garde French Impressionists. Nonetheless, in part because her favored subject was women and children, she has been treated as an art-historical lightweight.
Barter sought to set the record straight. With help from her staff, she contacted surviving family members, researched nearly 1500 letters and other correspondence, and hopped from museum to gallery to private collector assembling ninety works for a major retrospective. The result, besides long days and sleepless nights for Barter, was a popular and critical success story: More than 750,000 people viewed Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman during its year-long tour from Chicago to Boston to Washington, making it the fifth best-attended museum show mounted last year. As cur-ator of the exhibition Barter also prepared the massive catalogue, which has been hailed by critics as the definitive study of Cassatt's work. Commenting on Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman for The Women's Review of Books, Anne Higonnet calls Barter's catalogue essay "the single best, most balanced introduction to Cassatt's work ever written."
Indeed, Barter writes with informative grace, in a manner that educates without sinking into tedium. This doesn't surprise history professor Kathy Peiss, a member of Barter's thesis committee here. "She was very eager to write well," recalls Peiss, "and to write accessibly for the public."
Just to the north of the arched and columned marble
façade of the Art Institute, across East Monroe Street, is a
giant hole in the cityscape where the Illinois Central Railroad yard is being pushed underground to make way for Millennium Park, a "Tuilleries-esque" public garden that reflects the city's Francophile past. "Chicagoans had a knack for bypassing New York and heading directly for France," writes Barter in American Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago, the first catalogue completely dedicated to the collection, and its curator's latest impressive project.
From her office window overlooking the institute's Rice Building, which straddles very active railroad beds "an appropriate marriage of commerce and culture," says Barter she can just catch the glimmer of Lake Michigan across tree-lined Lake Shore Drive. Beneath the window, a long row of file cabinets labeled "Cassatt" is another testament to the long hours of research invested in that project. Cassatt has so dominated Barter's life for the past five years, she says, that she visited her in dreams.
"I was having a terrible time finding loans," she says, recalling one particularly restless night, "and I dreamt that I was standing in a painting storage room when I heard a knock at the door. I opened the door and there stood Mary Cassatt dressed like Miss Marple and she said 'I've come to help.'"
Barter laughs now at the apparition, but she found it a reassuring endorsement of her efforts at the time. This total absorption in a project, stressful as it is, tugs at Barter, making her long for the world of art and history when administrative duties demand too much of her attention.
"I loved immersing myself in a period of time, rereading Zola and Baudelaire," Barter says nostalgically, even as she thumbs through a half-dozen phone messages taken during lunch. Two-thirds of her time is spent attending meetings and conferences, fundraisers and events. "I sometimes have to remind myself that I'm being paid for my eyes," she says.
The very success of the Cassatt exhibition, of course, created additional demands. Barter made appearances on Good Morning America and The Today Show in addition to local news and talk shows. Not forgetting her friends in Amherst, she also gave a gallery talk and tour sponsored by the UMass Fine Arts Center during the exhibition's tenure at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and hosted an event for UMass alumni at the Art Institute.
Barter's successes have been deeply appreciated here in Amherst. During this October's Homecoming Convocation, she was awarded the Chancellor's Medal alongside her friend and mentor Doris Abramson '49. In her commendation of Barter, Dean Lee Edwards of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts praised her accomplishment in "freeing Cassatt from a limited and sentimentalized point of view."
"I was moved," Barter said after receiving the honor and thanking Edwards with a warm hug on the Bowker stage. "I lived in Amherst for fifteen years and it's wonderful to reconnect with old friends here."
HIGH ART PLACES
As a senior curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, Judy Barter is one of a growing number of UMass alumni in high art places. In addition to the many in regional and community arts organizations, here are some that we know of in the world's great art institutions:
· Deborah Wye '66, Chief Curator, Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, Museum of Modern Art, New York City
· Susan Ferleger Brades '76, Director, Hayward Gallery of the Arts Council of Great Britain, London
· Marilyn JS Goodman '83G, Director of Education, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City and Bilbao
· Naomi Baigell '84, Vice President and Director of Corporate Collections, Sotheby's, New York City
· Glenn Tomlinson '87G, Director of Museum Education, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia
· Mia Schlappi '91G, Assistant Vice President, American Paintings, Christie's, New York City