Opening an Exhibit in a New Museum

First we were obsessed.  Then we were interrupted.  In the middle of explaining our work with the Lincolns, we were asked to curate the opening exhibit in a new museum: the Jackson County Art Museum in the renovated “Truman” courthouse at the center of the square in Independence, Missouri.  We were contacted in mid-July.  The dedication was scheduled for Saturday, September 7.  The normal time-frame to create an exhibit is a year and a half.  Pat was asked to accomplish the task in a month and a half.  To write about the experience, Pat changes the blog format to photo-informal and the voice to first-person.

After a flurry of initial planning, I traveled to Independence, Missouri.  I needed to see the empty space that would become the museum.  The courthouse at the center of the town square was still under renovation, so the graphic designer, Erica Williams of Primary Colors Gallery, and I had to wear hard hats.

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I brought with me 8 1/2 x 11 inch glossy photographs, captioned with framed measurements,of the artworks that would fill the museum – primarily the Kenneth B. and Cynthia McClain George Caleb Bingham Collection. Jackson County officials had sent me blueprints, but only being in the space makes the process organic.  Erica and I each had independently thought about making actual size paper cuts, but there simply wasn’t time.  I scattered the photos in their sheet protectors throughout the rooms and refined my plan.  Erica took careful measurements to determine the size of display panels and labels in relation to the artworks.


The collectors and county officials approved the plan and I returned to my home in the Northwest to write the interpretation, George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History, which is a 21st century re-assessment of the artist.  Erica began the design of the display panels.

Every morning there were questions to be answered, such as insurance or cleaning procedures. By late morning I could settle into write.  To quote Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”  My friend Alisha Cole of Arcadia Consulting helped clarify my thoughts. She read every word and proved, once again, to be invaluable. She helped me push through the wall of terror of “It’s all horrible and I’m out of time!” and actually finish. 

Communications staff at Jackson County had agreed to edit the finished text. They performed the task with lightning speed.  I made their changes and emailed the pages of text to Erica.  She worked around the clock to get the designed panels and labels to the printers by their deadline.  I packed and returned to Missouri. 

The day after Labor Day Erica and I met at the courthouse.  Workmen were still everywhere. 

Workmen in Museum

In no time at all the art handlers from ArtWorks of Kansas City arrived with the McClain Collection in strong boxes.

Boxes of Paintings

As the art handlers and I worked to hang the paintings, Erica marked where display panels should be hung first with chalk, and then with painter’s tape at the corners and sides.  Joan Stack and Greig Thompson arrived from Columbia, Missouri, with five loans from the State Historical Society of Missouri.  The loan from Jackson County Historical Society appeared.

Walls marked for display panels

The paintings were hung.  But the printers had not met their deadline.  Text would not arrive until Friday morning — the day set for the gala opening.   Still the paintings and engravings were hung.

Wall of Judges 0904131448b 0904131448c  0904131448d

The printing issue was only the first of a myriad of problems – all within normal limits.  The lighting was too bright but the art handlers did a fine job of creating the reverential feeling I wanted.  One of the artworks needed an emergency repair.  Humidity had funneled a mat.  Ken McClain’s paralegal Amber McCarty could have a second career as a cat burglar; she checked, double-checked, triple and quadruple-checked the security system.  The Jackson County Art Museum is secure.  There was a communication problem over how to display a small piece as I wanted: upright in a vitrine with both the front and back visible.  On the back of the painting is a sketch that shows how much Bingham’s cabinetmaking apprenticeship influenced his composition.  I spent an evening figuring out how to keep the artwork safely vertical.  At the hardware store I bought 10 feet of molding – the smallest amount possible – and had the associate cut two pieces the width of the frame.  The next day Erica suggested she paint the pieces black.  With a healthy quantity of museum wax, the small painting was braced by the molding. 

Bingham, Thomas Miller in vitrine

Bingham Thomas Miller in vitrine

As we continued to work, the courthouse was readied for its rededication on Saturday, September 7, 2013,  at 2:00 pm, 80 years to the hour that County Commissioner Harry S. Truman dedicated the original construction. 

Bunting at the windows.


Flag waving gently at south entrance.

 Bunting and Flag on Jackson County Courthouse, Independence, Missouri

After the printer finally arrived Friday morning, he and Erica placed the panels and labels on the walls.  I erased chalk marks with a rag. 

Erasing chalk marks

When it was all put together, the museum entry:

Jackson County Art Museum; George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History Entry

The museum entry panel:

Jackson County Art Museum; George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History Front Marker

Introductory Panels:

Jackson County Art Museum; George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History Introductory Panels

An 1878 book of engravings lent from the personal collection of Dr. Joan Stack displayed on a period table found by Steve Noll, executive director of the Jackson County Historical Society, and in a display box with black velvet base custom made by ArtWorks of Kansas City.  The double-sided miniature portrait on a stand in its vitrine.

Jackson County Art Museum; George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History Cabinetmaker Displays

Portraits of three judges from 1837, 1863, and 1878,  with their labels, exemplify how four years as a cabinetmaker’s apprentice informed George Caleb Bingham’s composition throughout his lifetime.    

Jackson County Art Museum; George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History Examples of Cabinetmaking Influence

 George Caleb Bingham portrait of Mary Snell McBride and the brooch she wore in the painting in custom display case on period table. 

George Caleb Bingham, Mary McBride and her brooch

One of the finest engravings of George Caleb Bingham’s Order No. 11 next to a summary of the event from Ralph Monaco’s book, Scattered to the Four Winds, next to the sad posthumous portrait, Julia George, 1869/1870.  The photo shows only part of the room that focuses on the effects of the Border Wars in Missouri and Kansas, the Civil War and Reconstruction and their effects on the lives of the people in the paintings and on George Caleb Bingham.  

George Caleb Bingham, Order No 11, Jackson County Art Museum, Independence, Missouri

Portion of the  room of engravings that focus on American Art-Union and Bingham as a Politician with view of final room with examples Bingham’s artwork from the  last decade of his life.

Jackson County Art Museum, George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History

Concluding panel for George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History.

George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History

Pat at the opening of the museum:

Patricia Moss, Curator, George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History


(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2013
All Rights Reserved

About Patricia Moss

Patricia Moss is an art historian, or art detective if you will, who solves mysteries of 19th century American portraits. She located nearly 70 of Bingham’s lost portraits, a feat acknowledged by the Smithsonian’s Research and Scholar’s Center. From expertise with portraits of George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), she developed skills that evolved into a comprehensive system based on the scientific method that conforms to the legal and ethical standards of art authentication. Moss served as a guest curator for the Bingham Bicentennial Exhibit, “Steamboats to Steam Engines: George Caleb Bingham’s Missouri: 1819-1879,” (March 10-September 8, 2011) at the Truman Presidential Museum and curated the opening exhibition, “George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History,” (September 2013 –), Jackson County Art Museum, Independence, Missouri. She is also the principal researcher for Fine Art Investigations.
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