It is not unusual for there to be clashes between artists, curators, and collectors who loan works for exhibitions. Sparks can fly for many reasons including: differing understanding of an exhibition’s theme; fragility of the artwork; and difficulty in displaying it effectively and safely. A unique example of such a clash occurred between Emily Hall Tremaine, the artist Barbara Valenta, and Lowery Sims, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It illustrates that a perceptive collector can exert positive influence, giving an artist’s career a needed boost.
In 1977, the Tremaines had purchased Green and White (72 x 39”) directly from Valenta who was virtually unknown in the United States art world at that time, although in Europe she had begun to make a name for herself, having won the 1976 Porsche Competition for her steel sculpture at the Technical University of Vienna. Green and White was a mixed-media construction of canvas, wood, and dowels that jutted out from the sides. It gave the impression of a slightly off-kilter loom for weaving as if Valenta were pondering the interstices between art and craft. It was not flimsy, yet it intentionally conveyed a sense of impermanence. As was Tremaine’s way with artists whose work she had begun to collect, she sought to get to know Valenta personally, and the two women began to correspond.
Valenta’s construction White on White/III (1976) was owned by Tremaine’s friend Agnes Gund who had agreed to loan it for the 1979 Summer Loan Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Curated by Sims, the exhibition also included six major paintings from the Tremaine collection: Femme Au Chapeau by Roy Lichtenstein, Do It Yourself (Violin) by Andy Warhol, Crescent Wrench by Jim Dine, Animated Stability by Wassily Kandinsky, Ochre and White by Charles Hinman, and Departure of the Ghost by Paul Klee.
On attending the exhibition’s opening, Valenta was surprised to discover that White on White/III was nowhere to be found. She immediately contacted Gund, Sims, and Tremaine. Subsequently, Tremaine received a phone call from Sims explaining that she had decided White on White/III was too fragile to be shown because the crowds that visited the museum during the summer were rough and irresponsible. Suspecting that there was something else going on that had nothing to do with the potential for damage, the Tremaines immediately attended the exhibition and met with Sims. Emily followed up with a barbed letter: “During our visit this morning we found it difficult to believe the pictures were not secure in the gallery but, as you are more experienced than we, then we must accept your judgement that the pictures are in danger. Certainly if the Valenta cannot be risked, then we must ask you to remove our pictures and return them to us as soon as possible.”
Faced with the loss of a substantial chunk of the exhibition, Sims backed down and White on White/III was given its rightful place. Overcome with gratitude, Valenta wrote to Tremaine, “Once more I must thank you for your courageous efforts on my behalf. The stand you took in regard to the Met was more than I ever expected.” To Valenta, what set Tremaine apart was that she had “the courage to be among the first to stand up for a new person’s work.”
Tremaine’s support did not end there. Two years later she nominated Valenta for a MacArthur Foundation grant. Unfortunately, Valenta did not receive the grant, but Tremaine’s recommendation was in itself an important validation. Tremaine wrote that Valenta’s art had “a wonderful soaring quality that suggests kites, skies, space and timelessness.” She explained that Valenta “attacks her work with directness, intuition and insights and brings to it vitality and exuberance.”
From the perspective of collecting, the same qualities—intuition, insight, vitality, and exuberance—could be used to describe Emily Hall Tremaine herself. To those qualities, she added one more: the willingness to stand up for artists whose work she valued.
Special thanks to Milton Valenta for sharing memories of his wife Barbara Valenta who died in 2003.
Barbara Valenta’s work is vibrant and compelling. In her constructions, her colors–even the whites and creams— so penetrate the cloth fabric that they build an unconscious tension between form and color. Yet, the kite/ladder motifs bring a calm.
I wish Ms. Valenta’s work was more widely known. Someone should look at her paintings, as well, especially those that incorporate images of tool-like forms.
I knew Barbara Valenta and found her to be a very important
artist who engaged the intersection of informal materials and conceptual thinking about the nature of an art work.
The Emily Tremaine story explains how museum curators are more Culture Bureaucrats than knowledgeable appreciators of art. Sims thought she could dismiss a talented but lesser known artist and no one would notice. She neglected to weigh the value of Valenta to the Tremaines.
Emily was a real collector and true lover of art. She knew what Sims was doing and halted it.
Thanks for posting this inspiring story.
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