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A Community’s Collecting

“if we cannot tell a story about what happened to us, nothing has happened to us.”
James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

When does a bunch of something become a collection? That word “collection” is loaded, far more particular than most of us would recognize. As a kid, I had a stamp collection or at least I tried to, probably because someone gave me a three-ring binder intended for that purpose. But philatelists are born, not made, and I was not destined to count myself among them. Likewise for numismatics; at least a large quantity of coins passed through my fingers each day that I worked at my dad’s gas station.

Long before self-service, gas stations actually provided service. I pumped gas — it wasn’t even legal for customers to pump their own — washed windshields, checked oil, likewise water in both radiators and batteries, sometimes brake fluid, and now and then the pressure in tires.

Making change with one of these [eBay calls it a “change dispenser”] was easier than sorting through fistfuls of coin from my right-front pocket, not to mention saving the pocket itself from inevitable rupture. In spare moments, I’d sort through stacks of dimes, mostly, because Roosevelt dimes were still in circulation. Even the occasional silver dollar passed through my hands, and because of their infrequency found a place in that pocket to be traded out at the end of “my shift” for a dollar bill. Dad did much the same thing; I may have been aping his own pattern. By the end of the summer I had a coffee can filled with pre-1965 coins that were ninety percent silver. Nineteen sixty-five was the year laminated coins replaced those with a noticeably higher silver content. But those coins weren’t so much collected as they were accumulated. Dates and mint marks interested me at a much later date.

Stamps, coins, rocks (i.e., “mineral specimens”), bugs (beetles, butterflies, etc.), model cars, and even bottle caps and beer cans were standard collectibles for the pre-teen set. I wonder how many of those made the transition to ‘teen years and into adulthood. Not many, I suspect. Adult tastes (and budgets) opened a wider world of collecting, but some of those childhood fascinations survived in attics, basements, and garages, only to be revived from a sense of nostalgia and reacquaintance with lost youth. I think about a different sort of collection tonight, the Agincourt “Community Collection” housed at the former public library. How does collecting become a community-wide enthusiasm?

The Community Collection is currently one hundred and seven years old. Somehow its centenary celebration passed without much fanfare. But it’s never too late for reflection. Indeed, the Agincourt Project’s ground rules enable us to fix that. What can we say, do you suppose, about a collection of art often characterized as “Landscapes and Livestock”?

The collection’s “smoking gun”, the single person whose pioneering unintentional efforts laid its foundation, was unlikely to have proposed something so audacious: Amity Burroughs Flynn, widow of Agincourt’s thirteenth, half-term mayor Edmund FitzGerald Flynn. Following Ed’s sudden (and not universally mourned) death in 1895, Amity organized a modest exhibit in the G.A.R. Hall in the courthouse, borrowing with both grace and her special endearing brand of harassment, a dozen or so small works of art from personal and business collections community-wide. So successful was the show and the social events coordinated with it that she repeated the event two years later and annually thereafter. So from 1914 to the present (and from 1915 in the purpose-built Tennant Memorial Gallery in the old APL) Amity’s celebration of art in a modest Midwestern town had become an annual community event.

The exhibit’s purpose — assessing and hopefully elevating what passes for art in these parts — began simply enough as a cross section of “taste” and morphed almost imperceptibly from display to actual collection; that is, from personal to public. The organizing committee, still chaired by Mrs Flynn, separated many of the first works displayed from their owners by flattery or coercion. Since then it has grown by an average of three pieces every two years, but grown in multiple ways. And therein may lie its genius.

There are two components of this story. The first — THRIFT, GIFT and SIFT — is the history of the Community Collection itself, written by its current Keeper, Dr Ellen Weise, a faculty member at NIN. The second is my own perspective on the use each addition to the Collection has served to further the larger project narrative. The first will take a while; the second has already been done piecemeal and simply needs to be gathered.


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