A New American Art Gallery at the Brooklyn Museum

Feb 5, 2021

The Decorative Arts Trust shared a tour of a new American art gallery at the Brooklyn Museum on Thursday, January 28. Catherine Futter, PhD, Interim Director of Curatorial Affairs and Senior Curator, Decorative Arts, and Elizabeth St. George, Assistant Curator, Decorative Arts, led us through a reinstallation that serves as a case study for the department’s aim to create a more inclusive and representative interpretation of American Art. 

Standing in front of a wall where two 18th-century portraits by John Singleton Copley flank a 20th-century work by Faith Ringgold, Catherine explained, “First we had to think about what the collection was. The collection had been formed primarily by white collectors, especially white male collectors, and they had been interested primarily in the objects their ancestors had collected or objects people like them had owned. We really wanted to look at objects with new narratives.” Catherine added that the curatorial team sought outside partnerships to move beyond traditional museum installations and to discuss how raw materials reached workshops and the craftspeople who worked on the production of objects. 

The gallery is an experiment in which Catherine and Elizabeth created different groupings of objects to present new insights. British America was the first theme depicted in a case housing a tortoise shell cabinet and combs probably made in Port Royal, Jamaica, as souvenirs. The box’s carved ornamentation features racialized busts of Africans. The installation helps to frame the use of natural materials in depicting colonial perspectives. 

Next, Catherine discussed a tea table display developed to focus on materials rather than style. The story of the mahogany for the table, the spices for the posset pot, and the sugar, coffee, and tea are the central narratives conveyed through this display. In this way, Catherine addresses the labor required to procure the elements used to create these objects rather than just the objects themselves. 

Elizabeth shared a grouping of objects from Central and South America. Instead of looking towards design sources, a pair of mahogany armchairs from Mexico are used to connect the mahogany trade with the Atlantic slave trade. An extravagantly inlaid portable traveling desk from Peru or Bolivia illustrates the intermingling of ornament drawn from disparate cultures.

The next section of the gallery discusses African American artistic production. A Joshua Johnson painting, a Thomas W. Commeraw jug, and a cane by an anonymous craftsperson represent African American artistic practices. Elizabeth states, “As a footnote, the Brooklyn Museum doesn’t have many decorative arts objects that we can firmly attribute to being produced by African American makers…it is an area we hope to expand on.” 

The final grouping of objects deals with abolition. The objects were selected to speak to how abolition was defined during the 19th century. Elizabeth pointed out that abolition, during that time, was not about equality, there were many paternalistic undertones to abolition that can be seen in the ornamentation of objects like the ones on display at the Brooklyn Museum. 

The program closed with a Q&A led by Matt Thurlow, Executive Director of the Decorative Arts Trust. Matt asked compelling questions on how the impact of the reinstallation would be evaluated, how the project came together through the collections existing holdings, and more.

Watch the full tour to learn more about this exciting reinstallation project on our YouTube channel


A full list of all of the objects discussed on throughout the tour is below:


Dindga McCannon, American, born 1947
Empress Akweke
Acrylic on canvas

John Singleton Copley, American, 1738-1815
Mrs. Sylvester (Abigail Pickman) Gardiner
c. 1772
Oil on canvas

Faith Ringgold, American, born 1930
Early Works #25: Self-Portrait
Oil on canvas
50 × 40 in. (127 × 101.6 cm)
frame: 52 7/16 × 44 1/2 × 2 3/4 in. (133.2 × 113 × 7 cm)
weight with painting framed: 4

John Singleton Copley, American, 1738-1815
Mrs. Alexander Cumming, née Elizabeth Goldthwaite, later Mrs. John Bacon
Oil on canvas

British America

Casket or Small Cabinet
Place made: West Indies Jamaica
Tortoise shell, silver

Combs and Case
Place made: West Indies Jamaica
Tortoise shell
Engraved on front of case: “JAMAICA 1672”.

Tea Table Display

Robert Harrold, American, born England, 18th century
Tray-Top Table
c. 1770
Place made: Portsmouth, New Hampshire United States
Mahogany and mahogany veneer

William Simpkins, American, 1704-1780
18th century
Place manufactured: Boston, Massachusetts United States
Silver with wooden handle

Daniel Christian Fueter, Swiss, 1720-1785
Coffee Pot
c. 1765
Place made: New York, New York United States
Silver with wooden handle

Myer Myers, American, 1723-1795
Sugar Bowl with Lid
c. 1800
Place made: New York, New York United States

Posset Pot and Cover
c. 1700
Place manufactured: Bristol England
Ceramic, glaze, polychrome glazes

Central and South American Display

Unknown Aymara artist
Festival Hat
18th century
Possible place made: Potosi Bolivia
Repoussé silver plaques on velvet, glass beads, wire

Pair of armchairs
Place manufactured: Mexico
Mahogany, upholstery

Traveling Desk (Escritorio)
early 18th century
Possible place made: Moxos region Peru
Possible place made: Moxos Region Bolivia
Cedar or walnut, citrus and other wood inlays, and iron
9 1/4 x 16 3/8 x 12 in. (23.5 x 41.6 x 30.5 cm)
installed dims with BCD m-1 primary mount: 20 x 16 3/4 x 14 in. (50.8 x 42.5 x 35.6 cm)
Gift of Leo E. Fleischman

African American Artistry

Joshua Johnson, active circa 1795-1825
John Jacob Anderson and Sons, John and Edward
c. 1812-1815
Oil on canvas

Thomas W. Commeraw, American, active first quarter 19th century
early 19th century
Place manufactured: New York, New York United States
Glazed stoneware

Unknown American artist
Place made: United States
Wood, metal


Unknown American artist
Cornelius Paulus
Punch Bowl
Place made: United States
Incised on outer band of yellow slip: “Success to Trade and Navigation in All Free
States–North River” and the initials “C.P.”; incised on inner band of yellow slip:
“August 17, 1792–Albany Packet Two Brothers”; inscribed in central medallion
“Freedom / to the Slave / G.W.”

Modelled by: William Hackwood, died 1836
Josiah Wedgwood & Sons Ltd., founded 1759
after 1786
Place made: Etruria, Staffordshire England
terracotta on basalt (stoneware)

Designer: George Cruikshank, British, 1792-1878
c. 1855
Place manufactured: England
Glazed earthenware 

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About The Decorative Arts Trust Bulletin

Formerly known as the "blog,” the Bulletin features new research and scholarship, travelogues, book reviews, and museum and gallery exhibitions. The Bulletin complements The Magazine of the Decorative Arts Trust, our biannual members publication.


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