It’s safe to say that I would know very little about Agincourt and its environs—Fennimore County and the smaller communities in the fertile valley of the Mighty Muskrat—without the guidance of Howard Tabor, writer for The Daily Plantagenet. We’ve known one another for six years and exchanged messages so often that late night calls are commonplace. I call him friend.
Through Howard I’ve also become acquainted with a handful of other Agincourt citizens who have been equally forthcoming with images, information and artifacts for the exhibit scheduled this fall. My newest acquaintance is Emily Weise, an English teacher at the college who also happens to curate the community art collection in the Tennant Memorial Gallery. Professor Weise and I have shared only a few emails, but I’m already beginning to feel the character of the collection through her words.
The Community Collection (I should use capital letters; that’s how the collection is officially known) occupies the Tennant Memorial Gallery which still exists in the former Agincourt Public Library. When the library moved in 1970 to new quarters and became a county-wide facility, the second-floor library space sat vacant for two years—no one could imagine a tenant needing so much shelving, and then a local law firm came to the rescue, I suppose, of a building threatened with demolition—but the commercial space on Broad Street continued to generate rent; the art, however, had no place to go but storage. The collection then numbered about one hundred pieces and could easily have gone into an attic but that apparently wasn’t an option. So, in 1972 when the collection was already sixty years old, a corporation formed to own these works and maintain them for the future. [But who had “owned” them before?]
It all began in the summer of 1912 when Amity Burroughs Flynn (widow of a former mayor) proposed an exhibit drawn from the many personal collections of art in the community. She wheedled—wheedling was Amity’s stock in trade—a dozen pieces from the walls of parlours, private libraries and board rooms round and about town and hung them in the G.A.R. Hall in the old Fennimore County courthouse, a Richardsonian affair with large fireplace and glass-fronted book shelves. By all accounts, the Friday night opening was hugely successful. After a month of casual viewing and a lecture by an art historian from the Agricultural College at Ames, the art went home, so to speak, but the memory lingered on. There was talk of making it an annual affair.
It may be Mrs Flynn’s largest legacy to her adopted community that she kindled a flame for art that never faded. Instead of a sweaty gathering in August heat, however, she proposed something grander: a community-based collection displayed year-round with pieces from the 1912 exhibit at its core. How she cajoled those first families to donate their art isn’t recorded; I suspect shame had a role to play. Three works came from Amity herself.
“But the collection has grown,” you say. Yes, now in its one hundredth year, Agincourt’s collection may be unique in Iowa. After its first ten years of casual accumulation, an orderly growth began, with one or two new pieces added each year. And those new works came from the annual show itself, chosen by populist vote, creating a collection unguided by academic opinion. Hubris took a hike. Like a silent auction, the casting of votes and the posting of their rationale caused heated debate and at least a few hurt feelings. But the process of consensus continues. [If current congressional procedures had ruled the collection, we’d be looking at blank walls today.]
Professor Weise is the first “professional” to care for the Community Collection. Her title is “keeper” actually, not “curator”, and she takes her job at face value: preserve and protect the work and facilitate the collection’s evolution without value judgment. In September we’ll be privileged to see about twenty percent of her charges. At least forty pieces will be loaned to the Rourke Art Museum in Moorhead, Minnesota; the first time that the collection has left its home in the building the young architect Anson Tennant designed especially for it.
Representative of what we’ll see is this portrait of Wilhelm Auguste Karl Ernst Reinhardt [1874-1959], first president of the Northwest Iowa Normal School, painted by artist Susan Ricker Knox at the time of his appointment.
[NB: I wrote something about the Community Collection some months ago–perhaps even a year or more–so I should examine them for any discrepancies or disparities.]