Winterthur Alum Jonathan Fairbanks Receives the Old Sturbridge President’s Award
On June 17, 2015, Winterthur alum Jonathan Fairbanks was recognized by Old Sturbridge Village as a leader in the field of antiques collection and restoration. As Old Sturbridge Village President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Donahue stated, the President’s Award was launched “as a way of thanking our colleagues.” Indeed, Fairbanks has been a key player in defining the study of American decorative arts, material culture, and craft. Currently the Director of the Fuller Craft Museum, Fairbanks has forged an incredible career path, including as Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Other Winterthur graduates have followed in this path at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, including Nonie Gadsden, who is currently the Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture, and Dennis Carr, who is currently the Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture.
At the awards ceremony, a fellow Winterthur Fellow, Jane C. Nylander, delivered remarks about Fairbanks’ character and professional achievements. Nylander, who is President Emerita of Historic New England, spoke about how Fairbanks shaped her own professional path both in and out of the Winterthur classroom. Her comments have been transcribed below.
On behalf of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, we wish to congratulate Fairbanks on this tremendous achievement.
“Welcome to each of you and thank you for coming to share this evening with us and to congratulate our honoree.
I first met Jonathan on the first day of my museum career. We were standing in the Simsbury Room at Winterthur with eight others and introducing ourselves as candidates for admission to the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture. It was the Spring of 1959 and I was a Senior at Pembroke College in Brown university, a political science major trying to avoid having to go and teach high school history. I had enjoyed my studies in American Civilization, but I had never taken an Art History Course, nor did I have any idea what Winterthur was. In those days, they admitted one girl each year to the Program and the other female candidate was engaged to be married, so my chances of admission were much higher than I realized.
Jonathan was already married, a father, and a U. S. Navy veteran. He was an artist, working then as a mural painter, doing backgrounds for dioramas and wall paintings in Philadelphia. He already had studied art history, anatomy, and, of course, he had learned about sculpture and sculptural processes from his father.
From that day he has been my teacher and my friend.
So you can imagine how happy I was when he came to Boston in 1970 as Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Even before his arrival, he was able to expand the scope of his department by insisting that sculpture be added to its purview. The department was then well known for its fine collection of fine furniture and silver, especially 17th and 18th century things with local provenance, and Jonathan began immediately to expand its scope both geographically and temporally. Among his first exhibitions was Frontier America, which covered a much wider range. At the Opening, Jonathan came in costume as a Mormon Bishop and encouraged others to wear pioneer or cowboy dress, instead of Boston’s traditional black tie.
At the MFA, he founded both the Seminarians, a group of advanced collectors who wanted to study New England history and connoisseurship, as well as the Dustbusters, a group of women who provided useful housekeeping services in the American Galleries, in exchange for intimate tutorials with Jonathan and the opportunity to handle the furniture which he, correctly, assured them was the best way to learn about it.
His first exhibitions were comprehensive and collaborative, featuring the work of many curators and scholars. Notable were Paul Revere’s Boston, planned for the nation’s Bicentennial and New England Begins, the astonishing and richly detailed look at the world of New England in the Seventeenth Century, the 3 volume catalogue of which has become a rare, expensive, and much sought title.
That exhibition included an extensive and instructive exhibition and demonstration of timber framing – men and women in costume, including Jonathan, who proceeded to build a house in 17th century style, as a public demonstration on Boston Common. We learned to expect this kind of thing from Jonathan, for he understands more than many the value of recreating something as a key to understanding both why it looks like it does as well as how it was made and what it meant to those who made and used it.
The tours he planned for the Decorative Arts Trust and others often included visits to venerable craftsmen in their studios.
When it came time to provide additional visitor seating in the American Galleries at the MDA, he commissioned the best contemporary craftsmen to make individual pieces of their own design and then encouraged visitors to sit on them rather than to admire them on pedestals.
And he has always been looking for innovative ways to expand the impact and understanding of the collections under his care and to use them to engage and mentor students of all ages.
I’ll always be grateful to Jonathan for founding the New England Chapter of the Victorian Society in America. At that time, Richard and I were courting. I was working and living in Sturbridge, while Richard was at SPNEA in Boston. The Victorian Society meetings gave me an excuse to leave work early, drive in to Boston to attend the meetings, and not incidentally, go out to dinner with Richard.
And I’ll never forget working with him to plan the Upholstery Conference in 1978. It was a four day long international conference sponsored jointly by OSV and the MFA, with two days in each location offering lectures, workshops, demonstrations and exhibitions. It was more than a sell-out with nearly 300 people in attendance – museum curators, students, craftsmen, and collectors from both Europe and America. At that point in time, upholstery was a wholly new subject and we made sure to look at almost the entire range of the traditional upholsterer’s work –considering window and bed curtains, trimmings, and table coverings along with the expected comfortable seating furniture. The papers were scholarly and well-illustrated. It is thanks to Jonathan’s persistence and patience that they were finally published after ten years, a definitive work that is a valuable resource to this day. Beyond the lecture platform, the workshops and demonstrations amplified our understanding of the subject and we were able to examine historic examples of all forms in the exhibitions that were assembled specifically for the conference at both OSV and the MFA. Peter Thornton, then Keeper of Furniture at the V & A wrote to me later, expressing his pleasure in having participated and saying “It was like the Battle of Agincourt, you had to have been there to understand what happened.”
When Jonathan first came to Boston, he house-sat for two summers for Bert and Nina Little at their home on Warren Street in Brookline. He called a few special friends, all curators, to say “they’re away! Would you like to come and see the collection?” We jumped at the opportunity and spent some fascinating evenings discovering the treasures of their now well-known collections. At that time Nina was Chairman of the Collections Committee at OSV and Bert had been Director of SPNEA in Boston, so he was Richard’s first boss. We came to know them well, and it was Jonathan who arranged for the first public showing of objects from their collections at the MFA and eventually to Nina’s comprehensive book, Little By Little.
Jonathan has always been bravely ahead of the curve and perhaps, never more so than in 2000 when he joined the pioneering website known as Antiques America.com as Senior Vice President, responsible for content development. He understood before many people, the extraordinary amount of information and breadth of understanding that could be gained from full digitization of museum and scholarly resources. He pushed hard to apply that new thinking to the field of American decorative arts and the influence of that project has been far-reaching.
Jonathan is nothing if not bold. His knowledge is comprehensive. His thinking is deep and meaningful. In recent years he has brought his understanding of craft processes and contemporary design, his expansive vision, and great energy to the Fuller Craft Museum. There, as he has throughout his career, he has made sure to mentor young staff and develop opportunities for teaching. Some of his staff are here this evening.
Jonathan is generous. He is kind. Within the past few years he offered personal care and support to the widowed Joan Pearson Watkins, a ceramist and retired Smithsonian curator, whose husband Malcolm had been the first curator of Old Sturbridge Village. The two of them had inherited and assembled vast collections of ceramics and other New England antiques and they were never able to make up their minds about final disposition of those wonderful things. After Joan died without a will, Jonathan, at great personal effort and expense, was able to take charge of her collections and ha has done yeoman work to ensure that those things have made their way to museum collections where they would make useful additions. As usual, Jonathan maximized learning opportunities inherent in the project, hiring young museum professionals to assist in sorting, documenting, cataloging, and identifying the wide range of materials. Some of those who helped are here tonight. Richard and I became involved as representatives of several institutions and I am pleased to say that we were able to help see that many things found a good home. Old Sturbridge Village has catalogued 154 pieces of redware and 148 additional objects from the Watkins Collection, many of which are currently on view in the beautiful exhibition titled Kindred Spirits, which will continue on view in the OSV Folk Art Gallery until January 15, 2016.
Throughout his career Jonathan has brought understanding, meaning, relevance, and inspiration to the public through his exhibitions and explanations of New England life, history and art.
And so, we salute you, dear Jonathan, for your many contributions to our field and to many individuals through your caring, your high standards, your generous teaching, and your care for the future of the objects and institutions we hold dear.”