At Twenty-Five: Distinguishing the Biggs Museum of American Art

Biggs Museum of American Art, seen with the first permanent sculptural installation, Aloft, by Erica Loustau, professor at West Chester University. Aloft is the capstone of the museum’s 2011−14 renovation.

As we look forward to the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Biggs Museum of
American Art, our focus is one dedicated to the objects, stories, and supporters who
have made the institution not only notable—thanks to founder Sewell C. Biggs
—but unique among the nation’s art museums. Through the vision and
generosity of Mr. Biggs, the museum opened in 1993 on the Delaware state capital’s
impressive Legislative Mall and has, in the years since his passing in 2003,
continued to grow through public sponsorship, private philanthropy, careful choices,
and significant good fortune. This anniversary celebration presents the perfect
opportunity to reflect on that sustained growth.

Sewell C. Biggs, Peter Egeli, 1979. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Sewell C. Biggs 2004.469

After 2003 the staff and trustees of the museum initiated a series of ambitious
exhibitions, engaging programs, capital campaigns, and aggressive communications
to elicit greater attention and support from the community. A new spirit of
engagement within the Biggs began with the hiring in 2004 of the museum’s
curator, Ryan Grover, and culminated in a three-year expansion and renovation
of the galleries; several groundbreaking publications; a widening of the base
of support; and an enviable list of educational partnerships. Inviting this level of
public participation had a positive impact upon the museum operations, strategic
goals, and permanent collection—a collection that has doubled in size under
Grover’s stewardship.

The Marcia and Henry DeWitt Gallery in 2015, after the museum’s three-year renovation. Featured are works by the family of Charles Willson Peale as well as Federal furnishings from Delaware.

As noted by Charles Guerin, executive director since 2013, “The key stakeholders
of the Biggs Museum have guided its recently explosive pattern of growth with a
wise deference to the founder’s legacy. The core of Mr. Biggs’s intellectual and
collecting interests are continually maintained within his timeline presentation of
the permanent collection.”

Walnut side chairs, 1740−65. Gift and partial gift of the Loockerman / Bradford Family 2013.10.1-.2;
Mahogany pembroke table, Benjamin Randolph (?), Philadelphia, 1760−80. Museum purchase 2006.17; A Map of the World, Mary Tobias Putman, 2006. Acrylic on panel. Museum purchase 2010.7

The museum continues to celebrate Sewell C. Biggs’s passion for early Delaware
decorative arts with the addition of well-documented examples to his collection,
and few are as prized as the four compass-seat side chairs (1740−65) made for the
Dover home of wealthy merchant Vincent Loockerman. The chairs are
among the earliest known furniture believed to have been made in Delaware.¹ The
pembroke table on view with the set was perhaps made by Benjamin Randolph,
who supplied chairs to Loockerman, presumably in the 1760s.²

The American Rococo Gallery features exceptional Philadelphia furniture and silver in front of the 1758 Shipley mantel from Wilmington, Delaware.

The respect paid to Biggs’s interests in the growth of the museum collection is
matched by an equally ambitious desire to forge new directions and illuminate new
relationships within the galleries. The modern and contemporary art collections are
among the fastest growing portions of the museum. As examples of national trends
of the past hundred years are added to expand the original Biggs collection further
into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, much of the newest and most exciting
work being collected comes from within the Mid-Atlantic region, especially
Delaware. Displayed above the notable Loockerman chairs is A Map of the World
(2006) by Townsend, Delaware, resident Mary Tobias Putman, winner of the
Hassam, Speicher, Betts & Symons Purchase Fund Award from the American
Academy of Arts and Letters. This minimalist landscape features the timeless fishing
village of Leipsic on the Delaware Bay, only a few miles from the Biggs Museum.

Within a ten-year period, Mr. Biggs opened and nurtured a small American art
museum with a collection that reflected important early art forms of Delaware.
During the past fifteen years, the museum staff and trustees have built on that
foundation, creating one of the finest regional art museums in the country. The
Biggs Museum of American Art is the only institution working to give national
attention to the full range of artistic achievement and cultural strength within
Delaware and the greater Delmarva region (fig. 5). Its most distinguishing
characteristic is its courage in building an important American art collection that
offers a better understanding of a unique cultural geography—displaying the best
of the nation next to the best from right here.

At Twenty-Five: Distinguishing the Biggs Museum of Art is the special loan exhibit at this year’s Delaware Antiques Show, November 10–12, 2017.

The original article featured in the Delaware Antiques Show Catalogue was generously sponsored by Stratus Foundation/flyAdvanced.

Excerpt from the article submitted for publication in Antiques & Fine Art (Winter 2017).

¹ Two chairs have been gifted, and two are promised gifts of the descendants of Vincent Loockerman.

² The museum owns one side chair from this set; it is inscribed with Randolph’s name and the partially obscured date of 1762
or 1765.

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