Monday, July 26, 2010

Dead Artists' Homes, Ethics, and Museums: Westermann's House For Sale


It was with great surprise that I received an email this morning from a Connecticut realtor notifying me of the presence of the late H.C. Westermann's house on the market. The current status of the house had been the subject of questioning recently; although there has been scholarship published about the house, what happened to it after Westermann's wife Joanna Beale Westermann passed away some years ago was unclear to myself and others. Westermann's house was, perhaps, the culminating work of his extremely productive and storied career as an artist. Having braved difficult living conditions for nearly his entire life, he put his all into crafting the home that was the stuff of dreams for himself and his wife, as it was literally dreamed up by the two of them. Westermann painstakingly built the home from foundation to ceiling, all by hand and with very little assistance, using the most exacting standards of craftsmanship at great physical and financial cost. He was so dedicated to old-world methods of working that he refused to use Philips-head screws in constructing his house and used the finest wood he could find. Attached to the living space was a combination artist studio and gym, making the property place where he could both work and live with his wife in the relative seclusion they had so long desired. Hand-carved detailing throughout the home and studio mark the house as being Westermann's creation and reflect some of his life experiences. Sadly, Westermann passed away before he was able to move into the house. His beloved wife Joanna Beale Westermann lived there until her death.


So that brings us up to speed. The elephant in the living room is, who should have Westermann's house now that himself and his wife are gone? It is unclear whether it was in private hands after Joanna's passing but before right now, but it seems to me that it would be a travesty and perhaps an ethical issue to allow this incredible place to become a private residence. Does one person or family deserve to privately own what could be an incredible opportunity to educate the public about a very important American artist? On a very human note, is it ethical for someone to live in a house that someone labored so incredibly hard to build but passed away before being able to enjoy? The best answer is that a museum or cultural non-profit foundation should acquire the house, preserve it, curate it, and open it to the public. The artist's house as museum is a concept well-articulated by now; School of the Art Institute of Chicago does a fabulous job curating and maintaining the home of the late Roger Brown. To cite an architectural example, people travel from around the world to visit the home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright. Perhaps it is a bit idealistic to propose such a scenario as the only option; especially in current economic times it would be assuredly difficult for most institutions to take on such a large project as this. Another scenario would be a private collector or group of collectors purchasing the house; this could still yield some scholarship and hopefully occasional public access to the space.

Westermann's example is important to the discussion on artist house museums for two reasons. First of all, in a general sense the preservation, curation, and opening to the public of the homes of prominent deceased artists is a profound educational opportunity for generations to come. There is still an overriding general sentiment out there that art and artists remain an esoteric and pompous corner of culture, and what better way to help the public learn about and begin to understand an artist and his or her work than allowing them to visit their home? There is so much that one's residence says about them and their lifestyle that a painting or sculpture could never begin to capture. Secondly, in this case the artist's home is a work of art in and of itself. Idiosyncrasy, superior craftsmanship, and an appreciation for woodworking are apparent throughout most of the art Westermann created during his life. All of this is perfectly embodied in his home. Additionally, houses were one of the main themes that Westermann esoterically brought into play throughout his ouevre. All of this renders his home extremely important as a potential public treasure and as a scholarly opportunity for the art and museum world.

As Westermann continues to secure his place within the canon of postwar American art, I sincerely hope that this incredible opportunity for scholarship and the appreciation of his life and work is not lost due to the house being sold into disinterested private hands. It seems to me that The Smart Museum would be the ideal candidate to acquire the house; they have contributed much to the scholarship on and appreciation of Westermann through exhibitions and writings. Westermann's wife Joanna left many of his personal affects and much of his art to The Smart Museum when she passed away, so The Smart Museum is more or less the possessor of the world's strongest Westermann collection and the foremost authority on his life and art. If it cannot be The Smart Museum or another institution, I certainly hope whichever individual or individuals that purchase the house respect it for what it is and treat it as such. Only time will tell what happens, but hopefully it will be the right thing.

**Update, 8-30-2010
The price has been reduced to $425,000

**Update, 7-28-2010**

-I contacted the staff of The Smart Museum about this opportunity, and they stated in response:
"The Smart Museum had also been alerted to the fact that H.C. Westermann's home was on the market. The Museum's leadership is evaluating the opportunity that this might present."


-Patty McManus, the Connecticut realtor who is in charge of selling Westermann's house, provided me with the following additional details:
"The wood studio is almost exactly as Westermann left it. It has been kept like a museum. The home also contains some of the shipping crates from his artwork, his lathe and a number of other items. The art studio still has his chin up bar, tools, etc. My client is willing to transfer the property with all of his items." She is contactable at pmcmanus@wpsir.com

-Fellow Westermann appreciator and artist R.L. Croft brought up a very plausible scenario that would be a great answer to the financial strife facing many museums at this time:
"It would be a shame for it to end up being changed or lived in without complete museum-like care. Someone wealthy needs to buy it, donate it, and provide funds for its upkeep. I certainly agree that the Smart Museum sounds like a logical choice, but any museum with money ought to be salivating to add it to a collection."

3 Responses to “Dead Artists' Homes, Ethics, and Museums: Westermann's House For Sale”

Anonymous said...
August 4, 2010 at 8:59 AM

I met Mr. Westerman when I was about 12 or 13 years old - my dad is a visual artist who struck up a friendship with him late in his life. The chin-up bar in the studio is particularly meaningful to me because I remember him as a powerfully built man who demonstrated walking on his hands and other skills he developed while working in the circus. I hope this house is able to be preserved for all to experience. He and his wife were both wonderful people.


Anonymous said...
August 8, 2010 at 8:36 AM

Someone wealthy needs to buy it, donate it, and provide funds for its upkeep.

Sounds like a plan!


Mary Joyce Lising said...
April 7, 2011 at 12:36 AM

Yeah, me too I want to see the interior design of this. hope to see it soon.

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