A Brief History of the Community Collection
by Ellen Weise, PhD
with an Afterword by R.H.L.M. Ramsay
From its inception as the G.A.R. Exhibit of 1912, Agincourt’s civic art collection has been a small but vital part of our community history and cultural life. Organized by Amity Burroughs Flynn as a one-time event — a showing of just twenty works gathered from private homes and local business — what has become the Community Collection boasts more than two hundred pieces and hosts an annual event of considerable pride and more than local interest.
The 1912 exhibit and social events connected with it proved so successful that another show was held two years later, and by 1915 participation had grown to such a degree that space was allocated in the new public library program for a permanent gallery and reception room. Whether the Community Collection was its intended occupant can be inferred from the festivities surrounding the library’s opening in September 1915. That show in the new Tennant Memorial Gallery (dedicated as a testament to its young architect Anson Tennant) displayed forty works, double the number shown just three years previous; but here, too, the pieces were borrowed from local sources, what today we would call a “grass roots” expression of Agincourt’s cultural life.
It’s clear that by 1919 a permanent collection had evolved, though records from those early years are incomplete. Local lore hints that Mrs Flynn, still the guiding spirit, had cajoled a few of the early lenders to donate their art from a compound sense of civic pride, vanity, and guilt; she seems to have understood the definition of diplomacy as “the art of letting others have your way.” Whatever the underlying motives, a unique civic enterprise had been born, identified at the 1920 exhibition as the “Community Collection” and officially housed at the Public Library. Mrs Flynn’s guidance for nine critical years shifted to an oversight committee and remained a collective effort until 1950, when Ruth Arbogast became the first official Keeper of the Community Collection, a role and responsibility I have tried to fulfill since 2010.
In addition to the annual exhibit, the Keeper’s responsibilities have evolved to include collection care and record-keeping, adding new works and researching those with incomplete documentation. When conservation is required, museums in Des Moines, Omaha, or Sioux City have provided those professional services, paid from an endowment that has kept pace with the collection’s numbers, growing at an average of just over two acquisitions per year since 1912.
When the new Fennimore County Public Library facility opened in 1970, the Collection became a 501(c)(3) charitable trust and negotiated a permanent home in the old library, a good neighbor to the commercial and professional activities elsewhere in the building. And beyond its use as a gallery for traveling exhibits and the Collection itself, the Tennant Memorial serves as a venue for weddings, receptions, meetings and other events compatible with its higher calling, exceeding the Founders intentions more than a century ago.
At an event several years ago, someone (presumably unfamiliar with the collection) described it as a bunch of “landscapes and livestock”, superficial but true enough, because there are so many bucolic pastoral scenes, many with “safely-grazing sheep and cows, content ‘neath puffy clouds.” We, especially here in Iowa, are an agricultural people, so a philosophic and artistic connection with the land is natural. But why, then, in a place a thousand miles from an ocean, do seascapes constitute such a prominent type? One, so close, so familiar; the other, a faint recollection for the earliest settlers and others, even today, who’ve been to neither coast.
The breadth of genre (land-, sea-, and city-scapes, still lifes, portraits, and abstractions), of media (paintings in oil and watercolor; pastel, ink, and pencil drawings; photographs and prints, but most of it two-dimensional); and of age and, therefore, of style are remarkable for a collection so unintentional. And that may be its greatest strength and source of interest: the Community Collection has had no single guiding vision, no articulate editorial point of view. The nearest approximation may be a form of Japanese poetry called renga, probably unknown in the Edwardian Midwest of 1912:
renga (連歌, collaborative poetry) is a genre of Japanese collaborative poetry — poetry written by more than one author working together. A renga consists of at least two ku (句) or stanzas. The opening stanza of the renga, called the hokku (発句), became the basis for the modern haiku form of poetry.
Each new line of the poem is dependent upon, grows naturally from, what precedes it. And it is that spirit of organic growth which may have been the unintended pattern underlying our collection: each individual work may be considered in isolation, out of context, but it is the relationship between and among works that bring the collection to life. And because the entire collection can no longer be displayed at one time, our ability to choose, combine, and juxtapose works in various ways reveals something fresh each time they are shown. The curator’s compositional skills complement those of the artists.
BREADTH vs. DEPTH: It’s difficult for a collection of modest size (200-plus pieces) to enjoy both breadth and depth. Yet there are clusters of works here comparable in medium or subject which enable the sort of comparison revealed within the collections of far larger institutions. Multiple examples of woodblock prints, for example, in the Japanese style called ukiyo-e or “floating world” were created in the 1920s by both native Japanese artists and by Europeans, especially British artists, who imitated Japanese style. Seeing them side-by-side explains much about our cultural differences and the ways that diverse societies interact and culture transmitted.
By remarkable coincidence, there are also pairs of works by artists who not only knew but were friendly with one another. Exploring their biographies and the circumstances which brought them together offers insight to the very process of creativity and illustrates that who an artist is may link intimately with what an artist produces or how they go about their work. It was American artist-craftsman Elbert Hubbard who observed, “Art is not a thing, it is a way.”
SIMPLE vs. COMPLEX: Simple is not simplistic; neither is a complex thing convoluted or chaotic. Both have their proper place as characteristics in works of art and our appreciation for them. It is pattern and its detection which are common to these opposing ideas.
“If we cannot tell a story about what happened to us, nothing has happened to us.”
ART TELLS A TALE: Each work of art is a story. It may have been intended by the artist. It may have been inferred by another, a critic, an authority, or art historian. But equally valid and probably more important, the story will develop within the viewer herself. Something about the actors or their actions within the work resonate, conjure, arouse reaction from the observer, bringing to mind …
TALISMAN, TOUCHSTONE, METAPHOR, MEME: The fundamental questions remain: When does a bunch of art become a collection? What could possibly be the purpose behind its accumulation and how does that differ from the manifold ways it might be used?
<a work in progress / come back again soon>
Ronald H.L.M. Ramsay
As a member of the Permanent Collection Committee of another art institution, concerned with its maintenance and development at the core of the museum’s mission, I’ve become acquainted with Agincourt’s “Community Collection” during the last few years and marveled that a community of Agincourt’s size even possesses such a resource. Important personal collections exist in places like Agincourt, driven by an informed personal sensibility for what might be called “art” and enabled by not inconsiderable personal wealth, and those collections are often gifted to the public intact with a hope that they will be embraced by their community and become a seed, the core of something greater. But there is little, if any, precedent for what has developed in this small community in rural Iowa. Its organic process is as unusual as its beginning: It has no overarching “mission”, no single guiding hand. Indeed, the ad hoc-ness of it all seems to move the collection forward and to integrate it with Agincourt’s public life.
Frankly, I couldn’t have imagined anything so offbeat, so out of step with the orthodoxy of high culture. Neither can I recommend it to you more highly.