Photo: Renee Rosensteel
Jason Busch was a man on a mission long before his mission involved the care and nurturing of great decorative arts collections. His fascination with objects began early on, and for that he credits his mother, who enrolled him in art classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art and shared with him her passion for antiques. He also credits his professors at Miami University in Ohio and the Winterthur Master’s Program at the University of Delaware, where he gained a deep appreciation for objects dating back to America’s earliest settlement. In his line of work, you have to “understand objects, especially how they’re made and used,” he says. And he does, thanks also to curatorial stints at the esteemed Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and, now, Carnegie Museum of Art, where Busch became the The Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts in 2006.
His latest mission seems one he was destined for: to take the museum’s massive decorative arts and design collection and re-imagine how it will be displayed in the prime 8,000 square feet of space that is the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Galleries. One of his earliest “side projects” was to
manage the reconstruction of the museum’s decorative arts storage space, which today boasts state-of-the-art, custom storage cabinets, compact shelving, and climate control. But Busch’s greatest thrill has been his total immersion in the nearly 7,000-object collection in his charge. He and his colleagues are even writing the museum’s first handbook on the decorative arts and design collection, to be published this November. “I think we’re building on what our predecessors have accomplished in a wonderful way.”
What was your first exposure to the museum?
It was after the 2003 reinstallation of the Scaife Galleries. I was very impressed by the creativity in the installations and how decorative arts and design objects were so well integrated with fine arts. What I would later learn is that this museum really led the way nationally in that kind of integration.
Is that what you’re planning to do in the Bruce Galleries?
Absolutely. I thought, let’s play off the integration that we pride ourselves on at
the museum and integrate even more so: American and European decorative arts of the same period integrated with fine arts—especially portraits and prints of individuals who could have owned the objects. Architectural drawings of interiors and exteriors from the 19th and 20th centuries also work nicely in providing an architectural context for objects, and they will be installed as such in the galleries.
What I also want to present to our visitors are the objects unique to this museum and this region—objects they can see here and they can’t see elsewhere. That has been an important guiding principle to the reinstallation of the Bruce Galleries.
What was the first thing you did as the new curator of decorative arts?
I needed to understand the collection. How to organize it in storage, how to make decisions about what to put on view. And my staff and I bounced our ideas off dozens of specialists who are really the authorities in their fields, whether it be American furniture, British ceramics, or contemporary glass.
What became your main inspiration for the reinstallation?
I realized very early on that the strength of the decorative arts collection at this museum begins in the mid-18th century, and it grows and gets stronger in Andrew Carnegie’s own time and even past his time, which was truly part of his vision. It’s not unusual that you find collections of art in museums that reflect the development of the community. I’m proud of the rich artistic heritage of Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania, and I want to exploit that within the galleries.
Thankfully, several patrons in the region are lending important objects from their collections to help realize our vision. It’s gratifying to work closely with our collectors in such a way.
Can you give us a preview of something you’re especially excited about?
A centerpiece of our 19th-century gallery—really the heart of the Bruce Galleries—is a suite of parlor furniture from the Croghan-Schenley family home in Stanton Heights, which was torn down in the mid-20th century. The parlor from this beautiful Greek-revival mansion is now installed at the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, but without its furniture. Because Andrew Carnegie was one of the executors to Mary Schenley’s estate, we received two couches and six chairs that were part of a suite of 18 objects originally installed in this parlor (chair from the suite seen at left center). Over time, we received four more chairs, so we have most of the parlor suite, but it’s never been shown in its entirety. We were recently able to conserve this entire suite and will present it against a painted backdrop of the original parlor, taking our cue from the museum’s architectural drawings in the same gallery.
Do you have a favorite object among your new acquisitions?
There are two objects that I’m the most proud of adding to the collection. The first, strangely enough, was the first object I acquired for this museum: the most intact example of an American fully elastic armchair (made of wood but called “elastic” to describe its design, seen at far left). It was made by Samuel Gragg, and I chased after it when I was a curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. But it got away, and I thought it got away forever. Gragg’s design resulted in the most ergonomically successful chair of its moment; and while made in 1810, the chair looks like something made in our time.
The other object—the Tennyson Vase—made its way onto the list of the 2008 top-100 national art treasures in Antiques magazine. It’s a real tour-de-force example of silver craftsmanship, hand-hammered and then soldered together, and nearly four feet in height. It was presented by the maker, Hancock and Sons of London, to Queen Victoria prior to taking center stage at the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris.
Considering the importance of these two objects to our collection, we plan to strategically place them within the two doorways that welcome you into the