In Salem, Old Testament and Important Paintings Create Dilemma | Local
On Thursday, the poppies were in bloom at Georgi, large orange petals at the end of tall stems.
The hydrangeas, curving in a row on the lawn, were not yet blooming, but the breeze carried explosions of lilac scent. The Batten Kill wraps around this lawn, making it a peninsula of grass and flowers, with the house on a hill, surrounded by the tumult of the river.
This land, along with a house containing valuable Renaissance-era paintings and an irreplaceable collection of gems and minerals, was a bequest to the town of Salem at the will of Jessie Glen Georgi. Ownership was transferred to city care in the late 1980s, and since then city officials and Georgi staff, paid and volunteers, have been trying to figure out what to do with it.
Jessie Georgi left the town with her house, her car (a 1952 convertible Buick), her dirt and the gems, minerals, furniture, rugs, paintings and knick-knacks that she and her husband, an engineer. mines, had acquired for decades of collection.
It had long been “her cherished goal and purpose,” she says in her will, “to establish a museum for the education and enjoyment of the public, especially the inhabitants of the hamlet of Shushan.”
She also created a trust for the maintenance of the property and the operation of the museum. The trust now contains around $ 500,000, and the principal has grown over the years, said city supervisor Sue Clary. But because interest rates are low, the city only earns about $ 6,000 per quarter – $ 24,000 per year – for maintenance and operation, which is not enough.
More than 30 years have passed since the bequest was made, but Jessie Georgi “the purpose and purpose” has yet to materialize. At one point, the Georgi had a provisional charter as a museum from the state Department of Education, but this lapsed. Clary sought to renew it. If it can establish the Georgi as a non-profit institution, it can accept donations and apply for grants and, perhaps, become self-sustaining.
Georgi’s list of needs is long, but at the top is a climate control system for proper conservation of his 16 Renaissance paintings. The paintings have survived for centuries and crossed the Atlantic Ocean. It would be a disaster if their planks cracked and the colors faded now. But some people familiar with Georgi’s collection fear that because the paintings are not kept under standard museum conditions, serious deterioration is already occurring.
The problem with paints
Enter what Jessie Georgi has called her “River Property House” and you step into a large, almost empty room with a wood floor. A few cabinets against the walls contain the gems and minerals that Henry Georgi collected during his mining work, mainly in South America.
A smaller interior room is also empty, except for the paintings on the walls. Watching them is disorienting. The room is cold and it feels like it has been empty for years. But the paintings are magnificent. You could be in a Renaissance room of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, watching them, or in an intimate museum in Italy. It is difficult to reconcile the quality of these works – and their number and variety – with their location in an empty building in a dead end street in a small hamlet of Salem.
Georgi’s isolation, which makes it difficult to attract visitors interested in Renaissance art, has been a challenge for city officials trying to turn the site into a true museum. It also affected the paintings.
In 2019, the Georgi contracted with Mark Lawson, a professional antique dealer and appraiser from Saratoga Springs, to review and appraise some decorative pieces from Asia. During his stay he noticed the Renaissance paintings and, in his report to the museum, he mentioned them.
“The quality of the collection is impressive, with many outstanding works of historical and cultural significance,” he wrote, paintings. “Although their monetary value is high, this value may not fully reflect the irreplaceable character of these works of art.”
“Most of the works on display showed signs of continued damage and deterioration that will be difficult and costly to resolve. Some works present environmental damage that is now irreversible. It would be correct to say that the collection is slowly being destroyed by regular exposure to the extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity as they are currently housed. If left unchecked, these works of art will continue to be irreversibly damaged and risk being ultimately lost. “
An unsuitable climate
Clary agrees with Lawson that the situation is urgent. But over the years, other city officials have expressed concern about the paintings, pointing out that they have survived for hundreds of years without air conditioning or dehumidifiers.
Jonathan Canning, curator at the Hyde Collection Art Museum in Glens Falls, recognized the resilience of paintings over the centuries in Italy. But pointed out that the climate in the Mediterranean region is much milder than in upstate New York. The paintings were done on wood panels, he said, which can crack if exposed to large temperature swings like we do here.
Heat and humidity must be carefully balanced when storing paints like these, as the panels can be dried out and cracked by the heating systems used to raise the temperature in winter, Canning said. At Hyde, heat is maintained year round at 70 degrees, relative humidity at 50%.
“I can imagine it’s a real challenge for them,” he said.
The building has heat, but with only a crawl space underneath – it was originally the Georgis’ fishing hut – and one insufficient dehumidifier, the space sometimes gets cold, the others hot and humid frequently.
In 2015, the Georgi had to be closed, its works in storage, to cope with a mold infestation. At that time, the cost of air conditioning was assessed, including for only part of the building, but the work was never carried out.
“The deterioration and loss of the collection would be a tragedy,” Lawson wrote at the end of his letter to the city. “It would, almost certainly, be the exact opposite of the Georgis’ intention in handing over the responsibility for its upkeep and upkeep to the town of Salem.”
This summer and beyond
Although the artwork is behind locked doors these days, the grounds are open as a public park and are used by mothers with babies in strollers or people with dogs on a leash and others. looking for a meditative place to have lunch, talk on the phone or watch the river.
Many locals would be content to just have access to the park, but under the terms of Jessie Georgi’s will a museum is to be maintained in the river house or house and the property will be donated to the Henry Krumb School of Mines of Columbia. Henry Georgi Memorial University. In this case – failing to meet the conditions of the will – the art collection would go to the Fogg Museum at Harvard University and the mineral collection to the Smithsonian.
Wendy Bordwell, who served as the museum’s part-time director for around eight years before being fired in February, believes the city lacks the resources to run the Georgi as a full-time museum. She recommended, before leaving, that the museum place at-risk objects, such as Renaissance paintings, in permanent temperature-controlled storage and make them available for virtual viewing in video tours on Georgi’s website. .
Focusing on the digital experience would open the Georgi to a much larger audience than anyone who will ever make the trip to Shushan, while also protecting irreplaceable artwork, she said.
As for value, neither Bordwell, Canning, Lawson, nor Chris Daly, a local art history graduate student who has done extensive research into the provenance of Georgi’s Renaissance paintings, no. ‘were willing to speculate on their value.
The market fluctuates and prices depend on various factors including the condition, importance of a particular work, and the strength of the evidence behind its attribution to a particular painter. A quick online browse of paintings by some of the artists featured in Georgi’s collection revealed selling prices ranging from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But even at a moderate price, the paintings are valuable and they are beautiful. They are a surprising treasure to hang on a few walls in an old luxury fishing hut in Shushan.
And although these treasures were intended for the enjoyment of the locals, for now, no one can see them. Whether these changes will depend on the success of Sue Clary and others in navigating the terms of a decades-old legacy which, despite the goodwill of its author, has created an ongoing dilemma for the city of Salem.
Will Doolittle is a project editor at The Post-Star. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on his blog, I don’t think so, and on Twitter at @trafficstatic.