Starting with a vision

June 14, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

In the brief space of 12 years the Museum of Decorative Arts of Montreal has assembled what may be the most extensive collection of modern design objects in the world -- about 3,000. It's a feat that must have required rare vision and at times aggressive collecting, but the woman behind it is scarcely aggressive in personal manner. At the opening of "What Modern Was" a week ago, Liliane Stewart, president of the Decorative Arts Museum of Montreal, was soft-spoken, exquisitely polite, and almost eager to defer to the museum's director and the show's curator accompanying her. "It was a team effort," she said repeatedly of the collection.

And indeed it was, but Mrs. Stewart and her late husband, David Macdonald Stewart, began it all. In the 1960s and 1970s they restored the Chateau Dufresne, a double house built for two brothers in 1914, as a house museum. They could have left it at that, but decided instead to make it a decorative arts museum and build a collection.

That's where the team effort came in. They consulted curators and other experts in the field in Europe and America to decide, she said, "what 50-year period of decorative arts to collect." Finding that styles even as recent as art nouveau and art deco demanded "very large sums of money," they decided on the most recent 50 years.

At that time, curator David Hanks said, "No one was doing it. The scholarship hadn't been done, and it was a wide open field for both collecting and scholarship."

The collection as it stands today represents the efforts of museum professionals, Mrs. Stewart emphasized, and is "absolutely not" the result of hers or any one person's idiosyncratic tastes. "In fact," she said, "[on occasion] I have said I want to give this [object], it would be wonderful for the collection, and they have said, in not so many words, it doesn't fit."

According to museum director Luc d'Iberville-Moreau, the collection of modern design may be the largest, or at least the most comprehensive, anywhere. "[The Museum of Modern Art in New York] has a major collection, but they do not collect textiles or jewelry. We want to collect in fields MOMA has not done."

Although the current show covers the period 1935 to 1965, the museum collects right up to the present, and in fact commissions contemporary work from artists.

The museum and its collection are supported by a number of sources, from the city of Montreal to the American Friends of Canada to the Macdonald Stewart Foundation. The collection is now much too large for Chateau Dufresne, and there are early plans for a museum building somewhere in Montreal, to be designed by Canadian-born architect and designer Frank Gehry.

Defining modern

What: "Design 1935-1965: What Modern Was."

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets.

When: Wednesdays through Fridays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., through Aug. 2.

Admission: $4.50 for adults; $3.50 for senior citizens and students; $1.50 for children 4 to 18; free for children 3 and under and BMA members; everyone free Thursdays.

Call: (410) 396-7100.

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