Huntington’s Heckscher Museum kicks off 100th anniversary with special exhibit

Huntington’s Heckscher Museum kicks off 100th anniversary with special exhibit

By Tara Mae

It’s time to celebrate! In honor of the Heckscher Museum of Art’s 100th anniversary, the museum will present a centennial exhibit, The Heckscher Museum Celebrates 100: Tracing History, Inspiring the Future from June 5 to Jan. 10, 2022. 

The exhibit is both a retrospective and a promise of future endeavors. Grouped chronologically by year, it encompasses the entire museum and features art and artifacts, including paintings, sculptures, and mixed media, acquired as part of its collection over the years.

“The work in our collection belongs to us. Because of the size of the museum, our permanent collection includes 2300 objects and at any one time we can only show about 100 things. It fills the entire museum; one big show,” said curator Karli Wurzelbacher. “I looked at the museum’s 100 year history and identified four key moments that are important to who we are as an institution.”

These elements are the museum’s founding, its relationship with local artist George Grosz, the influence of Long Island artists Arthur Dove and Helen Torr, and the largest donation ever received by the museum ­— a 363 piece Baker/Pisano collection of American Modernism in multiple forms: sculpture, watercolor, paintings, and pastels.

Founded in 1920 by Anna Atkins Heckscher and August Heckscher, the museum’s original collection was donated by the couple, who built it from scratch and gathered artwork with the museum in mind, according to Wurzelbacher. 

Having emigrated from Germany to escape the Nazis’ rise to power in the 1930s, Grosz lived in Huntington from 1947 until his death in 1959 and became very involved in the work of the Heckscher. 

“He visited the museum, served as a juror for contemporary art shows, taught private art lessons for adults in the community, and then the museum started collecting his works. [Our] collection didn’t start growing until the 1960s when we started adding works, slowly … He is one of the first artists we started collecting,” said Wurzelbacher.

Grosz’ most famous painting, Eclipse of the Sun, is featured in the centennial exhibit and serves perhaps as a symbol for both the artist and museum’s ties to the local community. 

After Grosz painted Eclipse in 1926, it was shown once at a European exhibition. It was then lost to the public for the next 40 years, until a visitor to the museum disclosed that they were in possession of it. The Heckscher’s art director at the time, Eva Gatling, launched a campaign to acquire the painting.

“…Gatling was one of the first female [museum] art directors in the country. She saw the painting and mobilized the community to pitch in and buy the work. About 200 people donated money to purchase work,” Wurzelbacher said. “Students at Huntington High School took up a collection. It’s a fantastic story about the community coming together collectively to buy one of the most important works of the 20th century by a local artist.”

Like Grosz, Arthur Dove and Helen Torr made Long Island their adopted home. The museum, which has the largest collection of Torr’s work, will display archival materials such as paint brushes and paints used by the couple, as well as their artwork. 

Peers of Georgia O’Keefe and figures of American Modernism, they lived on a boat docked in Huntington Harbor during the 1920s to 1930s and purchased a cottage in Centerport that was acquired by the museum in 1998.

“Their artwork, while abstract, distills their experiences living on the Long Island Sound. They are so important in the history of American Modernism and the history of Long Island art. Dove is considered the first American artist to work with abstraction in the 1910s … In 1972, Eva Gatling [organized] the first ever museum exhibition of Helen Torr, whose work is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” said Wurzelbacher. 

Unlike many other museums, the Heckscher owns its entire collection, built up over the years largely through acquisitions and donations. The Baker/Pisano collection, featuring work by O’Keefe and Florine Stettheimer, was donated in 2001. It also contains work by Long Island artists and reflects a connection to the area.  

“In doing this process, it has been remarkable in seeing these deep local ties. We show Long Island and local art, and are able to put it in a national and international context,” Wurzelbacher explained. 

The scope of the exhibit, however, embraces and extends beyond these motifs. “We also have outstanding acquisitions that don’t relate to these themes,” she added. 

“A lot of the show is masterworks of collections … things we exhibit rarely but that we wanted to get out for this occasion, as well as historical ephemera: old photos of previous exhibits and photos of the museum as it looked soon after it opened.”  

In September, about two dozen objects will go off-view and other art will go on-view. Originally intended for 2020, the museum’s centennial plans were postponed due to the pandemic. “I am happy to have the extra time; it allowed us to end the show with recent acquisitions. Had we done the show a year ago, we wouldn’t have been able to include them,” Wurzelbacher said. 

Tickets are available for purchase online at www.heckscher.org. Timed ticketing is required. The museum is open Thursday to Sunday, from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call 631-380-3230.

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