by Courtney McNeil, Chief Curator & Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs
Telfair Museums is one of the oldest art museums in the country, and it took the efforts of many staff members, volunteers, and board members to make the institution into what it is today. But in the organization’s long history, there are a few people who stand out as having made an outsized impact. High on this list is Gari Melchers (1860-1932), the artist who served as official art advisor to Telfair from 1906 to 1916, and continued informally advising the museum on purchases through the 1920s.
Who Was Gari Melchers?
Born Julius Garibaldi Melchers in Detroit, Michigan, Melchers was a highly successful artist in his day, earning awards for his art and exhibiting frequently in New York and the Salons of Paris and Antwerp. He further served the field through his involvement in the Smithsonian Commission to Establish a National Gallery of Art and the Virginia Arts Commission, among others. Yet his most enduring institutional affiliation was with Telfair. His connection came through his wife, Corinne Lawton Mackall (1880-1932).
Mackall’s uncle, Alexander Rudolph Lawton, was leading the Telfair Board of Curators in 1905 when Carl Brandt, Telfair’s first director, died. Rather than hiring another director to succeed him, Lawton invited his niece’s husband to serve as fine arts advisor for the institution. Serving in this capacity, Melchers collected more than 70 works for Telfair’s permanent collection, including most of the museum’s treasured American impressionist and ashcan school paintings.
A Champion of American Artists
Melchers was universally liked and well respected by his peers. A remembrance published in The New York Times shortly after his death captures the spirit of many contemporary accounts of Melchers as a person: “… It was his charm of personality which won him his distinctive place in the community. Natural kindliness, a sure instinct for finding out the best in other men, personal modesty and readiness to recognize the good work of others, even when it did not conform with his own artistic standards, made him the close and valued friend of all his fellow-craftsmen.” (“Gari Melchers,” The New York Times, December 1, 1932, 20)
Melchers used his position as art advisor for Telfair to help broaden
previously narrow views about what types of artwork were worthy of inclusion in museum collections. Rather than focusing only on European-born artists who purely adhered to academic tradition, Melchers deliberately divided his acquisitions between European artists and their American counterparts, explaining, “You see my ardent desire is to work in an American picture as often as possible.” Melchers was true to his word, purchasing important paintings by American artists Childe Hassam (acquired in 1907), Ernest Lawson (1907), George Hitchcock (1908), Frederick Carl Frieseke (1910), and George Bellows (1911) over the course of his first five years of collecting for Telfair. By the mid-1920s, the roster of American artists represented in the museum’s collection would expand to include Robert Henri (1919), Edward Redfield (1920), Jerome Myers (1921), Charles Webster Hawthorne (1921), Gifford Beal (1925), and Willard Metcalf (1926).
A Paradoxical Position
Melchers recognized that his unique position as a practicing artist serving as advisor to an institution provided distinct benefits to the field (the opportunity to promote his fellow American artists by including them in a previously Eurocentric collection) and to the institution (negotiating low prices that sometimes doubled the museum’s purchasing power). This position certainly caused tension between Telfair’s best interests and his personal relationships with his fellow working artists.
Melchers’s negotiations with his peers were not without friction, and in a 1920 letter to Telfair’s board president he uncharacteristically vented his frustrations with his role: “My position in many of these Telfair transactions, where I deal directly with the painter, has been rather that of a damn mean cus [sic] who sails a little too close to the wind and I fear the Telfair will have to, in the future, come nearer the actual prices of pictures or go without them.”
Yet Melchers continued to voluntarily advise the museum on purchases even after his official tenure had ended, which seems to indicate that he was able to surmount these tensions and find a balance for these competing interests and allegiances that satisfied him. As a result, Telfair’s collection stands as a noteworthy testament to Melchers’s prescient collecting vision.