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Monday, October 22, 2012

Update: Teaching the MA in American Fine and Decorative Arts Program

Let me first start with an admission: the blog, like many in the teaching world, likes to take its summers off to travel a bit, do some research, and plan for the academic year.  After some time in London, Tampa, and a trip to Cape Cod, however, the blog is back and has been quietly observing the travels of the new class as the first semester of study at Sotheby's Institute of Art unfolds.  

One bit of encouraging news is that we are on track to finish the Catalog of Paintings in the Redwood Library Collection by the end of this school year.  I am particularly grateful to have a cadre of students committed to the project and willing to donate extra time to help see its completion through.  My goal is to make this collection and the research undertaken on it accessible in as many platforms as possible; I will keep posting updates as needed in this regard.  At present, we have completed all of the artist biographies and are working our way through the editing process and finishing research on the paintings.  I remain committed to the idea that graduate programs should use the efforts of teachers and students to perform services that broaden knowledge, increase exposure, and perform a public service.  

While we have traveled quite a bit throughout this semester already, yet some (perhaps most) of it has been without a camera.  This makes for a great learning experience for the students, but not necessarily the most engaging blog posts.  It's a much different model of teaching and learning than I was exposed to during undergraduate and graduate school, however, and this distinction is worth noting.  My days at Rutgers and CUNY were essentially spent in darkened rooms, illuminated only by slides, with little exposure to the physicality of objects, whether in the context of museums, auction houses, or private collections.  While there are many advantages to a slide lecture--the ability to reach across collections and make connections, for instance--we did little to confront objects in their natural habitat.  Slides, I have come to realize, have their use but also their limits.  Once the scale of objects is lost, as inevitably it is in slides, one loses the connection to the object itself and becomes, in some ways, a disinterested observer, picking through the information the object yields and yet blind to the reality of the object, unaware (even unable) to understand it as a presence, a palpable entity that moves the viewer intellectually, emotionally, and even physically.  I cannot imagine a day where I give up slide lectures, but I am also grateful to be in New York City and to travel so that my students can experience objects first-hand, to see how condition, context, and the object itself help to create and deliver meaning.  In addition to our regular coursework we travel on three regional trips a semester, and when we are not away I make it a point to get them out each Friday to view something.  

Our first big trip of the semester was Boston and Salem.  The students are incredibly fortunate to have Gerald W. R. Ward, Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture teaching the decorative arts component this fall, and he has done an exceptional job preparing them for the collections we saw throughout the trip.  In the course of 2 1/2 days I took them to Trinity Church, The Boston Public Library, The Gardner Museum,  Harrison Grey Otis House, the Peabody Essex Museum, and Vose Galleries.  The highlight of the trip for me was a tour of the MFA in Boston where Gerry Ward led them through the collections, talked about the collections, and connected the materials they saw in class to larger issues of interpretation and installation.  

We are also fortunate to be in NYC, and I think this provides students with an access to materials and objects that is unparalleled.  Highlights of our Friday field study trips this year have taken them (or will take them) to: the NYHS to see the narrative painting exhibition, the Metropolitan Museum American Wing, the Brooklyn Museum's American Wing, the Merchant's House museum, the Yale furniture Study center, Ralph Harvard (for historic interiors and a lesson on Southern architecture and furniture), Christie's (for a preview of the September sale with alum and department head Andrew Holter), Doyle's Auction house for a collection visit with alum Peter Costanza, and the City Hall Portrait Collection. We also are looking forward to a number of visits to Sotheby's and the expertise of our colleagues there.  

These trips are undoubtedly enjoyable, and I am fortunate to find myself in a position that allows me to take students around and expose them to new places, people, and objects.  That being said, I am aware of the potential that posts like this have to be viewed merely as objects for shameless self-promotion, and certainly on some level they are: I am tasked with running a program and sustaining its viability through enrollment.  Yet, I also think that models of pedagogy are an important thing to share, to explore, to develop and that a blog entry like this can further that discussion and collaboration.  I remain committed to the primacy of the object and to creating a learning environment that stresses academic rigor and practical exposure to materials, objects, and interpretations.  I think that as the marketplace for objects continues to grow that we should seek new ways, as Americanists and art historians, to train the next generations to identify, interpret, and make relevant to new audiences the material we all hold dear.

New Research on Onondaga Metal Shops

Of all the Arts and Crafts movement enterprises, Onondaga Metal Shops remains among the least well understood. Onondaga Metal Shops was a short-lived company organized in 1905 by Edward C. Howe and located at “to manufacture art metal goods consisting of hand hammered copper and brass lamps, trays, smoking sets, advertising signs and the like.”  Howe, the son of a Syracuse jeweler, had worked with his father up until late 1905 when he formed Onondaga Metal Shops.  Located at 581 South Clinton Street, the firm advertised for metal workers, specifically seeking Germans, as late March 1906, but despite the appearance of growth, the company was likely never a viable operation.  Unfortunately for the business, as the Syracuse Journal reported in July 1906, “It was said that Edward was inclined to follow the fast side of life socially, and it had come to the ears of the family that he had been paying attention to a certain woman whose name was unknown to them.”  He left Syracuse on July 16, abandoning his wife and leaving her essentially destitute, and walked away from a company with many bills and little in the way of assets.  On July 29, 1906, the Syracuse Journal reported that a petition of involuntary bankruptcy was filed in the United States court against Howe and noted that Thomas A. Mars–superintendent of the shop–was appointed receiver of the business.   At that time, it was estimated that the company’s debts were about $12,000, or roughly twice the estimate of the value of the company’s stock and accounts.   
The Onondaga Metal Shops never lasted long enough to produce any catalogs, nor do they appear to have advertised their wares.  While in Bankruptcy, the company was purchased in September 1906 by Henry Benedict and moved from Syracuse to East Syracuse where it became associated with the M. S. Benedict Manufacturing Company, a firm primarily known for their silver plated wares.  Known as “Benedict Art Studios,” this reworked version of the Onondaga Metal Shops began advertising shortly thereafter, but continued to stress the connection between to Benedict Manufacturing Company.  At first, Benedict Art Studios appears to have been housed in a separate factory, but by April 1907 the company announced plans to enlarge their building in East Syracuse–essentially doubling their floor space–in order to allow for increased production of their flatware and other products.  As the journal Fabrics, Fancy Goods, and Notions informed their readers: “With the completion of the addition the company will be in a position to very materially increase their output and with the recent acquisition of the Onondaga Metal Shops, now known as the Benedict Art Studio, for the making of art goods in hand-wrought copper, brass and iron, they will be in a position to serve the fancy goods trade in first-class shape and in greater quantity than ever before.”  It is likely that at this time the concern’s entire facilities were merged and though the name “Benedict Art Studios” continued to be used for the next several years, there was no longer a separate facility for production. For instance, in 1911 when the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company mapped East Syracuse, they made a thorough survey of the factory but no mention of a separate facility for the production of Arts and Crafts metal.

The M. S. Benedict Company’s facilities occupied virtually all of the land on a triangular plot which was bounded by Highland Avenue, West Manlius Street, and West Yates Street.  The factory was located about one block away from the railroad line which ran through the center of town.  The company’s space was comprised of a number of buildings which included storage areas, facilities for “Casting and Metal Mixing,” office space, and a separate building labeled “Empire Dep’t.”  It would appear that rather than being operated as an independent aspect of the larger company that the designation “Benedict Art Studios” was more akin to a line of wares produced by Benedict Mfg. Co.  The relative paucity of known examples of the work seems to indicate a very limited operation.  Extant advertisements and notices only use the designation through 1911, though the production of hammered copper wares continued under Benedict Manufacturing Co., until at least 1912.
        Aesthetically, the Onondaga Metal Shop’s work followed is indebted to forms produced by Stickley and examples of British metal work including examples of pieces from Art Fittings Limited.  For at least two examples of work—a humidor and a wall plaque—the designs were directly copied from Stickley’s examples.  As a result of the direct use of designs and the close proximity of the shop to Stickley’s operation, it seems likely that a worker with knowledge of these objects must have been a link between the two factories, though in the absence of an employee roster at this period this remains a matter of conjecture.

Bibliography and sources:

The best available research on the firm has been undertaken by David D. Rudd of Dalton’s Antiques who authored the article “Wrought in Syracuse: Onondaga Metal Shops and Benedict Art Studios,” available online at  
“Metal Shops Bought by Benedict Company,” The Post Standard [Syracuse], September 25, 1906.  
The firm’s first advertisements for workers appear in various issues of The Syracuse Journal in December 1905.  These advertisements also confirm the firm’s address.
“Howe Skips Leaving His Wife Behind,” Syracuse Journal, July 28, 1906.  The following day, a rival  paper described the woman as “an attractive young North side widow.”  See “Howe is Bankrupt,” Syracuse Herald, July 29, 1906. 
“Howe is Bankrupt,” Syracuse Herald, July 29, 1906.  Later reports listed the receiver as Charles G. Baldwin.  See “Metal Shops Bought by Benedict Company,” The Post Standard [Syracuse], September 25, 1906.  Howe also applied for bankruptcy in 1909 in order to prevent him from paying back about $10,000 owed to his father.  See “In Voluntary Bankruptcy,” Syracuse Herald, March 19, 1909.
Fabrics, Fancy Goods, and Notions 40 (November 1906): 35.
“Increasing Their Facilities,” Fabrics, Fancy Goods, and Notions 40 (November 1906): 48 notes “The Benedict Mfg. Co., of East Syracuse N. Y., have taken over the entire plant of the Onondaga Metal Shops, and have moved the machinery to East Syracuse, building a special factory to accommodate the same, which will be known as Benedict Art Studio.  It seems likely that this was a separate facility on the company’s grounds since no additional addresses or listings have been located. 
“To Enlarge Plant,” Fabrics, Fancy Goods, and Notions 41 (April 1907): 32-3.
“At Pittsburgh,” Crockery and Glass Journal 74 (September 21, 1911): 20 noted: “a new electric portable display... which is attracting considerable attention.  It is made by the Benedict Art Studio Co., of East Syracuse, N. Y.”  By May 1912, hammered copper wares do not appear to have used the “Benedict Art Studios” name any longer, see “Exhibition of Fancy Goods at the Palmer House, Chicago,” Fabrics, Fancy Goods, and Notions 46 (May 1912): 51 for hammered copper wares being displayed under the Benedict Manufacturing Co. name.