Dewey Lee Curtis and the Creation of the Decorative Arts Trust

The Trust was the brainchild of Dewey Lee Curtis (1924-1986), an important fixture in the early Americana field. Dewey was known for keeping notes on the back of used envelopes, hence the title of Penny Hunt’s lecture for the Trust’s 40th Anniversary celebration in Hartford, “From the Back of Dewey Lee Curtis’ Envelope: 40 Years with the Decorative Arts Trust.” During the bicentennial era of the 1970s, Dewey noted an opportunity to connect like-minded collectors, curators, and history enthusiasts from across the country through a national organization aimed at supporting museums and preservation groups in the broadest possible sense.

Born in Virginia, and an alumnus of William and Mary and the University of Virginia, Dewey reached Philadelphia as the Assistant Dean of Admissions for the University of Pennsylvania, where he became involved in numerous preservation projects. While not a household name today, Dewey was active in many arenas, and, in 1964, was appointed the first curator of Pennsbury Manor in Morrisville, PA, the recreated 17th-century country house of William Penn. Dewey enjoyed and knew first-hand the challenges of a historic site.

During his first year at Pennsbury, he initiated an annual antiques forum that brought together leading scholars and curators from the United States and abroad to Philadelphia, thereby creating a template for the Trust’s symposia as well as connections to top figures in the decorative arts world. Dewey also understood the high value of a great cocktail party to bring an event to the next level, a tradition we proudly continue today.

In an era when the line between curator and dealer was not as rigid as it is today, Dewey was a partner in Joseph Stanley Antiques of New Hope, PA, an active firm featured at the best shows around the country. Through his commercial endeavors, Dewey met collectors nationwide as well as the network of dealers and antique show organizers who served as the backbone of the burgeoning trade in American antiques.

With an enviable rolodex in hand, Dewey started calling on friends near and far for their endorsement, participation, and patronage of his new venture, the Decorative Arts Trust. Following planning meetings in the bicentennial year of 1976, the organization was chartered in 1977. By mid-1978, the Trust had already tallied 630 members, representing 42 states, Canada, and England. The locations of our first symposia, such as Indiana, Maryland, North Carolina, and Kentucky, illustrate a concentrated effort to focus programs outside of the traditional centers of decorative arts study. Furthermore, each gathering was organized in partnership with a local host organization.

The makeup of the Board of Governors in these first years testifies to the strength and length of Dewey’s reach, not to mention his impressive abilities to cajole and solicit assistance. Representatives from major museums and publications as well as leading collectors climbed onto his bandwagon. While Dewey served as the de facto director of the Trust, he never drew a salary, nor did he aspire to serve as president of the board. He was always active behind the scenes, however, recruiting new members and orchestrating programs.

At the core of the Decorative Arts Trust, Dewey saw an opportunity to champion the sea change of scholarship and collecting that defined the 1960s and ‘70s. By drawing attention to talented and up-and-coming scholars and important historic sites around the country and abroad, he provided access to the well-spring of new information generated by his peers. Perhaps most importantly, Dewey established an egalitarian organization accessible to all comers interested in learning about the past. We are proud to honor Dewey’s passion, vision, and dedication and grateful for the 40 years of success achieved from a note on the back of a used envelope.

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