“Oh, those were the days!”
Meandering trips down memory lane don’t always make for great stories. Unless, of course, they involve a rental car, a wool blanket, and a 40-pound bronze sculpture.
First, a little background. During the ’70s, when Middlebury’s Friends of the Art Museum was in its first decade of existence, a lot of energetic people—with a collectively huge appreciation for art—volunteered their time and money to support what they envisioned as a local mecca of fine art for the college and local community to enjoy. The mood was always celebratory, the spirits always high. And members like Hunisak, Glenn Andres, David Bumbeck, and Robert Reiff brought with them a wealth of expertise in the art world.
Each year the group would assess their funds, research options for purchase, and then select a piece to be that year’s donation to the museum. In honor of the current exhibit at the Middlebury Museum of Art, “Friends Bearing Gifts: 40 Years of Acquisitions from the Friends of the Art Museum,” I met with Hunisak at 51 Main and, over a martini—very, very dry—he told me how it all worked. The exhibit continues through Dec. 12.
“The Friends usually had about $18–20,000 to spend on a new piece for the museum. As a group, we’d think about an area of interest for that year’s purchase—maybe 19th-century photography or 18th-century sculpture, whatever we felt like we needed to round out the collection.
“Then we’d get in touch with some key galleries in New York City and tell them we were coming. They’d pull together a few pieces, and two of the members—I was lucky enough to be one of them on several occasions—would hop in a car and drive down to the city. Usually we’d rent a station wagon or something else big enough. We never took my car, which was a VW bug! Not at all up to the task! (Note: for those of you who are not familiar with John Hunisak’s highly contagious and delightful laughter, go seek him out and tell him something funny.)
“We’d spend two full days touring the galleries for things to bring back to the Friends to choose from, and, oh, we’d see some beautiful pieces. And also some not so beautiful! Every once in a while we’d walk into a gallery and know right away that it was not for us—you know the feeling. So we’d make a hasty—but always polite—retreat.
“At the end of our whirlwind tour, we’d make our selections of two or three pieces and get ready to head back to Middlebury. And by ‘get ready,’ I mean we’d pull out our pile of blankets and throw them around the pieces before we situated them in the back of the car! These days the pieces arrive via insured delivery, wrapped in bubble casing, and crated 10 times over.
“Some of the pieces were quite large and heavy, actually. I remember the Bust of Diana, an 1880s bronze sculpture by Falguière…must have weighed about 40 pounds! I think that was the last one we actually collected by car. It was quite awkward really. I suppose we could have dropped it, but…well, we didn’t!
“Back in Middlebury, the Friends would gather for the much-anticipated Purchase Party—the event of the season back then. People would dress up, we’d have a sumptious meal—it was really spectacular. The pieces to choose from would be exhibited around the museum—which back then was in Johnson—and Friends would wander through the main gallery and view the pieces, while we who’d selected them would say a few words about each piece to give some background.
“Later the voting would take place. Highly technical, of course! We’d each write our choice on a small scrap of paper and stuff it into a box! A few volunteers would tally up the votes and the winner would be announced. Everyone was happy—and those who weren’t would simply have another drink!
“Then, of course, we’d have to make a trip back to the city to return the pieces the Friends didn’t choose. That was never as much fun.”