As I was walking through the galleries at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts I stopped in front of this Charles Sheeler. It was smartly hung in a corner, next to a 1958 Ralston Crawford and below a 1951 Alexander Calder. It’s a smart hang — precisionism kicked forward a bit on the walls, streamlined forms given the biomorphic treatment hovering up above . After I’d spent a few moments with the paintings, I found that I kept looking at the unusual frame around the Sheeler: What is that and where did it come from?
Fortunately, VMFA does something unusual with its wall-text labels: It doesn’t just list the artist, the title of the work and the acquisition date/info, it includes data on the frame. In the case of this Sheeler the label reads:
Oil on canvas
John Barton Payne Fund, 54.3.3
American, ca. 1953
Wood, carved and painted
Frame information! Sure, the label doesn’t say if “original” means its Sheeler’s frame or if it was just the frame a dealer put around the painting way back when, but that’s still about 98 percent more information than most (any?) other museums provide.
I’ve only seen this at VMFA and only in the museum’s American galleries. VMFA American curator Sylvia Yount told me that the museum has done this for a while, dating back to the tenure of her predecessor, David Park Curry (who is now the American curator in Baltimore). “We consider them important transitional objects between the paintings and decorative art holdings,” she told me in email.
It’s a practice that I wish would spread to other museums and to other curatorial departments. How many times have you seen atrocious frames on impressionist paintings and thought, ‘That frame has to be about the collector and his sense of self-importance, right?’ and so on. (And maybe, just maybe, being a little more up-front about frames would motivate curators to use more sensible frames, too…)