A Legacy of Love: Selections from The Mabel Perkins Collection at the Grand Rapids Art Museum

Eugène Delacroix, Tigre Royale, Lithograph,1829.

Eugène Delacroix, Tigre Royale, Lithograph,1829. Grand Rapids Art Museum, Gift of Mabel H. Perkins

by Aaminah Shakur

The Grand Rapids Art Museum is celebrating their ten-year anniversary in their current location. Started by Munkenbeck+Marshall Architects, and completed by Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY Architecture, the structure is significant as one of the first LEED certified museums, and because the GRAM’s former venues were existing structures adapted for use as a museum. Two exhibitions open through April 28 are staged to celebrate the anniversary:  A Decade at the Center: Recent Gifts and Aquisitions, and  A Legacy of Love: Selections from The Mabel Perkins Collection. The exhibition title refers both to Perkins’ love for the GRAM, and her love of prints as an art form. Perkins’ mother was the founder of the Grand Rapids Art Museum in 1910, and Mabel herself also served as President. Over the course of twenty five years, Perkins donated over three hundred prints to the GRAM, and she is being honored as one of the museum’s “greatest champions and supporters.” Her dedication to the museum is evident in both her lifelong service, and her gift to the GRAM’s collection of prints, one of the institution’s areas of special focus. Although Perkins made this donation prior to the move into the current facility, they represent a substantial amount of the existing print collection.

The exhibition fills two small rooms on the third floor adjacent to the anniversary exhibition featuring gifts and acquisitions from the last five years. This placement encourages viewers to see the Perkins collection as an extension of the anniversary celebration, even as the work shown is dramatically different from the colorful A Decade at the Center that features a wide variety of styles, forms, mediums, and a definite affinity for contemporary art and design. In contrast, the Perkins exhibition displays only about fifty of the more than three hundred works Perkins gifted the museum. Prints spanning from the 16th through 20th centuries, include artists such as Pablo Picasso, Francisco de Goya, Yves Tanguy, Édouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Utgawa Hiroshige, Marc Chagall, Timothy Cole, Childe Hassam, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Perkins’ favorite, Albrecht Dürer. Visitors may note that A Legacy of Love consists primarily of art by white male artists, with only two artists of color, both Japanese, and two women included. This is not surprising given statistics about collections in American art museums, and the period during which Perkins was crafting her collection, but this again demonstrates the contrast between A Legacy of Love and the larger collection occupying the other half of the third floor.

The motive of the exhibit is to showcase prints from Perkins’s collection. There is a wide variety of subjects including reflections on nature by artists Childe Hassam and John Taylor Arms, female dancers by Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, images of motherhood by Mary Cassatt, Primitivism as interpreted by Paul Gaugin, Pablo Picasso, and Max Beckmann, portraits by William Harry Warren Bicknell and Timothy Cole, and beautiful color woodblock prints from Utagawa Hiroshige. The works are arranged so that subject comparisons could be made between the loosely related works–nature themes were hung together, as were Primitivist works. The only cohesive thread was the shared medium. Only six pieces were in color, and there seemed to be no effort to either keep them together for comparison or spread them throughout the exhibit. The prints themselves were executed in several methods, including etching, woodblock, wood engraving, drypoint, and lithography, on various sorts of paper.

The work spans a large cultural period and therefore encompasses the historical and cultural interests of multiple eras. Alongside Goya’s works addressing the Peninsular War of Spain, there are artists’ interpretations of modernity, Victorian cultural interests in Japanese art, and Modern interests in all things “Other.”  The prints address a variety of references and issues pertinent to the period in which they were created, unfortunately, the didactics do little to enlighten the viewer about the larger social historical or technological context, or how this selection relates to the rest of Perkins’ collection. The exhibit feels slightly crowded and yet somehow insufficient. As a curated exhibition that shows less than twenty percent of the Perkins collection, it would seem that some effort should be made to explain why these particular pieces were selected and to better relate them to each other. Information about why and how Perkins collected the individual works would have added much interest to the exhibit. Furthermore, the inclusion of Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer within the predominantly Modern selections, makes the show feel unbalanced.  The wall text states that the pieces chosen are “highlights” from the collection, but the exhibit seems to rely too much on recognizable names rather than compelling work that presents a meaningfully interconnected exhibit.

I found myself interested in what was absent in the exhibition. Did Perkins predominantly collect white artists? Did she fail to collect women? This would not be shocking considering it was certainly the norm for her generation, but as a woman who was herself dynamic, educated, and part of a changing culture, one cannot help but wonder if the absences reflect her collecting choices or the choices of the curator. Was more compelling and diverse work excluded in favor of more popular artists and “important” names? Further, why downplay Perkins’ larger commitment and integral nature to the museum by failing to acknowledge her presidency and her family’s founding of the museum?

Historically, the Grand Rapids Art Museum has been a relatively conservative organization, and certainly the Perkins family contributed to that reputation and mission. Under new leadership, the museum has begun to break out of that mold, and Decade at the Center represents those changes. It is almost a shock to move from print show to the newer acquisitions. In this context, A Legacy of Love effectively represents the interests and mission of  the“old” GRAM, whereas Decade at the Center represents the institution’s intentions as they move forward to embrace design and more diverse contemporary artistic voices. In a sense, as disparate as these two exhibitions seem, it is logical to include them on the same floor and to honor the contributions Mabel Perkins made to the museum, even as we watch the GRAM expand and reinvigorate itself so that it remains relevant, welcoming, and meaningful to our community.

The Grand Rapids Art Museum is located at 101 Monroe Center St NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49503

Hours of Operation:
10AM-5PM Tues., Wed., Fri., Sat.
10AM-9PM Thurs.
12-5PM Sun.

Members and children under 5 – Free
Youth age 6-17 – $6
Adults – $10
Seniors/Students (with ID) – $8

Meijer Free Tuesdays: 10am – 5pm
Meijer Free Thursday Nights: 5pm – 9pm

For more information contact Visitor Services at 616.831.1000 or info@artmuseumgr.org.


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