When Colonial Williamsburg staged its first Antiques Forum in 1949, it hoped the art historians, antique dealers and antique collectors who gathered from across the country would leave the pioneering event feeling enlightened.
Instead, the remarks made by legendary curator Joseph Downs left many listeners with Southern roots wondering if their hearts and souls — if not their hair — had caught on fire.
Delivering a talk on regional furniture, the head of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was merely giving voice to the predominant opinion of the day when he observed that "little of artistic merit was made south of Baltimore."
But when he begin taking questions, a woman remembered only as "a little old Southern lady" responded as if he'd thrown down the gauntlet.
"Mr. Downs, did you make that statement out of prejudice or ignorance?" she asked.
"I had better plead ignorance," he replied, taking the first quick backward steps in an argument that was plagued by lack of knowledge from the outset.
Sixty-five years later, so many well-placed volleys have been fired in answer to this once-prevalent assumption that the question of artistic merit in early Southern decorative arts has been largely settled. But if any doubts remain, the latest salvo from Colonial Williamsburg breaks so much new ground that — its curators say — it's not just a celebration of an overlooked legacy but also a definitive rebuttal.
"Thirty years ago, we couldn't have done an exhibit as large and comprehensive as this — because we didn't know these things the way we do now," says chief curator Ronald L. Hurst, describing the encyclopedic array of 350 objects found in "A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early South."
"As one of my colleagues has said, this is the largest exhibit of Southern material culture ever mounted — and part of the reason behind that diversity and depth is to reinforce the idea of just how much the South made. The idea that it didn't is a myth."
Funded by Williamsburg donors Michael and Carolyn McNamara, the landmark show was more than two years in the making, during which Hurst and Senior Curator Margaret Beck Pritchard spent long stretches of time studying early objects in scores of public and private collections throughout the South.
But its roots reach back to the milestone 1997 book "Southern Furniture, 1630-1830," which Hurst co-wrote with former CW furniture curator Jonathan Prown, now executive director and chief curator of The Chipstone Foundation in Wisconsin.
Where that widely admired study and an accompanying exhibit focused on 150 pieces of furniture, however, Colonial Williamsburg's new and much more comprehensive survey also embraces an extended range of media, including painting, prints, metals and ceramics as well as mechanical arts, firearms, architectural artifacts, rare books, maps, clothing and musical instruments.
"This is one of the most important shows in the history of Southern decorative arts — and it's the first that explores such a complete range of media," says Robert A. Leath, chief curator of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in North Carolina, who served as consulting curator.
"It's a very dense exhibit — and it's filled with great objects that we will never see come together again in our lifetime."
Among the flagship examples in the show is MESDA's great late-1700s Charleston library bookcase, which hasn't left the pioneering museum's building in Winston-Salem since it opened nearly 50 years ago.
Scores of other seldom or never-loaned masterpieces from more than two dozen collections across the region are also on view, underscoring the momentous nature of the exhibit.
"We had the gall to ask them all for five-year loans — and they all said, 'Yes,'" Hurst says.
"That's a long time for these places to be without so many key masterpieces. But they all bought into it because they wanted people to see their best things in a setting that would show off their importance."
In addition to established stars, the exhibit bristles with surprises, too, showcasing many objects that have only rarely or never been in a museum setting before, including a large number from regions that decorative arts scholars describe as the South's "Back Country."
Among them are a Kentucky chest of drawers blending influences from both the mid-Atlantic and New Orleans, an exuberant Georgia slab table and a Tennessee corner cupboard fabricated from wildly figured walnut.