Home » A few figs from thistles » The Tennant Memorial Gallery

The Tennant Memorial Gallery

I’ve asked the question before: When does an accumulation of things become a collection? When and under what circumstances do the parts become a whole? When, indeed, is the whole greater than the sum of all its parts?

More years ago than I care to admit, I put together a portfolio of my undergraduate design work. It’s creepy looking at your own stuff, wondering what glue holds it together, other than some binder bought on sale. So, I’m interested in Howard’s perspective on the Tennant Memorial Collection: more than fifty artworks still hanging in the gallery designed by his great uncle Anson Tennant in 1915. 

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Field Trip

In the latter 1950s, when I was twelve or thirteen, my father made a business trip to Chicago and asked me to come along. We stayed at a smaller hotel between Wabash and Michigan, just within earshot of the El and walking distance of the Berghof, where I may have had my first schnitzel (which I’d once confused with schnauser, but that’s another story). Simply walking through the city’s urban canyons, though, was excitement enough, because Uncle Anson had already regaled me with stories of the city where he studied architecture and even known the legendary Louis Sullivan. That may have begun my love affair with buildings; if not, it surely cemented it.

On Saturday, however, with dad’s business safely concluded, we went to the Art Institute, up the broad steps between its two bronze lions and into the biggest building I’d even seen. My most vivid memory was an afternoon seated before George Seurat’s enormous painting “An Afternoon on La Grande Jatte,” so large and significant that it was given its own room—or that’s the way I recall it. On a hard bench about twenty feet in front of it, I sat immovable, transfixed, while my father visited the surrounding galleries of French Impressionism. He knew where to find me.

As an habitual reader of the comics, I knew that that part of Saturday’s Plantagenet was made of thousands of tiny red, blue and yellow dots; articulated when I put my nose to the newsprint but blended into all the colors a twelve-year-old can understand when viewed at arm’s length. How many times had I stood and walked toward the Seurat until its familiar shapes of people and shrubs dissolved into a stew of colored bits, and then back again to the bench, watching their flatness become round and fully formed.

When Becky Fletcher asked me to write about the Tennant Memorial Collection in the old public library, as the collection celebrates its centennial, I recalled that afternoon. Our collection is very unlike the Seurat in one respect: its pieces are small and hardly known beyond the walls where they hang. But in another way they are quite similar: because, viewed from a distance, the individual parts may indeed become an organic whole.

Spat

“Art is what it does, not what it is.”

In 1911 someone organized an art exhibition in the G.A.R. Hall of the old Fennimore County court house. A social space with cavernous fireplace and high beamed ceiling, the room was often used for receptions and lectures before the Civic Auditorium was built by the WPA. My family contributed a few pieces, as did many other Agincourt families; there is a surviving checklist of about two dozen works—probably of no great significance to anyone beyond their owners. But with the Masonic Lodge fire and the laying of plans for a new public library, the project grew to include a memorial gallery where a public collection of art might be on semi-permanent display. Great grandmother Martha Tennant got involved and persuaded our family to underwrite a large part of the additional funding required for such a civic amenity. Uncle Anson had entered that anonymous competition (with an orthodox Carnegie-era free-standing library building) and then modified his design significantly after he won the commission in early 1914.

Great grandmother must have been a persuasive woman, because she managed to convince those families who had loaned works for the month-long GAR exhibit to contribute those pieces as the core of a public collection. There was no danger of competing with the Art Institute of Chicago (or similar institutions in Des Moines and Omaha, for that matter) but it was a benchmark in our growth as a community and, in its own small way, a first step in the emerging City Beautiful movement that would dominate the 1920s. Managed by the new public library board, that core of twenty-plus works (mostly paintings) now numbers almost two hundred that still hang, a few at a time, in a room built for that purpose and dedicated in 1915. Telling the story of that collection, its evolution and the names of those who guided its acquisitions will be my task in the next few weeks. When questions arise, as they always do, I’ll post them here and hope for your help in telling its truth.


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