A brush with history

Ever try to put on an art show at a national historic landmark? No easy task. Just ask Susan Gilgore and Gail Ingis at the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum in Norwalk.

Ever try to put on an art show at a national historic landmark? No easy task. Just ask Susan Gilgore and Gail Ingis.

Gilgore — Susy to her friends — is executive director of Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum in Norwalk. Ingis is a mansion trustee and the curator of the juried show on exhibit through June 23 titled, “Historic Grounds & Modern Gardens.”

A national historic landmark comes with a lot of  “can’ts,” as in can’t touch the walls, can’t touch the lighting, can’t touch anything.

And so, Gilgore says, it’s a challenge to stage an art exhibition.

“We don’t have the walls that you would find in an art gallery, so we can’t paint them. If they’re painted they have to be painted with the paint that was used back then” — “back then” being 1868, when the house was completed — the middle of the Victorian Era. Staying historically accurate costs tens of thousands of dollars, she says. 

“And we can’t put any holes in the walls,” Gilgore adds, which provides Ingis and her husband, Tom (he’s on the ladder as his wife directs), the challenge of perfectly placing the show’s paintings with the home’s original hanging devices — wires suspended from attachments secured near the ceiling.

But on this early April day, just prior to the opening of the exhibit to the public, WAG was afforded a special private tour of the exhibit.

Ingis, as curator, took the lead, unveiling a bit about herself along the way, the same as a painting — slowly, subtly and symbolically, until you “see” the entire picture.

Ingis’ Coney Island upbringing rings true in her voice as she describes the paintings on exhibit — oil, pastels, watercolors and acrylics. “I am pleased the way it came together,” she says, after putting out the call in mid-January and whittling down dozens of applicants to a baker’s dozen.

A longtime artist herself, we ask Ingis where her paintings are. “I don’t hang anymore. I hang someone else’s works.”

But four years ago was a different story. 

“I did 48 paintings of Coney Island. I’m a Coney Island girl. I spent years there. And even after I got married we were always there playing handball with the old men in Washington Baths. (Washington Baths was on West 21st Street, between Surf Avenue and the Boardwalk.)

“I’m an author now, I do historic romance … 19th century, but I’m going to go back to painting because a lot of my friends said to me ‘We miss you, we want you, come and paint.’

“My husband retired — you don’t need to know all this — but I want to play with my husband, I want to finish my book and I’ll do a little bit of painting. I don’t need to hang my art … I’m happy doing this.” (But do check out gailingis.com.)

Her choice of art, its placement — Ingis didn’t go wrong. But she didn’t do it alone. 

“Susy is a very big part of why we bring and what we bring in. She said ‘Let’s do historic grounds and gardens.’ Susy and I work together on every single show… I wouldn’t do it without her.”

But how does the museum capitalize on a show?

Ingis says more than asks, “See that red dot? That’s the one! That one already sold.”

Gilgore says, “This is a great way to be part of the artistic communities of our region, but also it is a great way for us to fundraise. We get 30% of proceeds and they go to the cultural and educational programs.”

But an exhibition comes with agita, she adds:

“I’m always nervous about a juried show because it’s a bit of a gamble for a museum. You don’t know how many will apply, who will apply, is the art going to be in keeping with the parameters that were set? So it is not until the last minute do you know if you have a show or not. (Nervous laughter.)  But it all worked out. We had a lot of submissions from New York artists and throughout Connecticut.” She finally concedes that she’s happy with what she sees.

The tour continues. We stop in front of a large colorful painting whose colors alone brighten a corner of the billiards room and its dark wood. It’s “Nature’s Confetti.” Ingis fills in the rest extemporaneously.

“This is Joan Poarch. She is a fantastic artist and she has a little gallery in Southport. Her son bought the building, he’s a real estate guy, and invited his mother to show her work. …I love her work. Her work is so beautiful. She does landscapes that would knock your socks off. And this is a very beautiful painting. She’s a pro. Not everybody here is a pro.”

Among the 13 artists, the split is about 50-50 of professionals and nonprofessionals.

“This is an opportunity for artists to show their work and to get exposure and, as an institution and in representing that institution, I’d like to give exposure to as many artists as I can,” Gilgore says.

Back to the tour.

Ingis gestures, “This young lady here she does murals. I have no idea who she is, I have no idea how old she is, but I wrote to her and I said please Maya (Santangelo) can you send me your bio in a doc. All it says in five lines is ‘I love to paint. I feel so good when I paint. Painting is my favorite thing.” Ingis smiles at the powerful statement of those concise, simple sentences.

“I put her other painting up there. I’ll tell you why I put it up there. It’s a powerhouse of color. And if it was down here it would steal the viewer’s attention. But up there it comes forward because it has warm colors in it.”

As we come to another painting, like and dislikes are broached.

Ingis says: “I’m an interior designer. So I have to have very diversified tastes. I’m retired, I did work for 50 years in the field with all different people who were clients. Art is the same thing. …Emerson, the young man who works here, said it’s his favorite. I don’t really like it, but it meets my criteria of art.”

“When I was growing up, my father was an art dealer in New York and my uncle was the curator of MoMA and then he became one of the directors,” Gilgore says. “I always heard the artists talking and my father talking about artists and one of the things that I always heard was that an artist needs to grow and change. And so if you do the same painting over and over again it’s not necessarily a good thing. So you can see a lot of the contemporary artists I knew growing up — like Frank Stella and Bob Motherwell — they all evolved. So that’s important.”

And as evolution is important for artists, it goes for Lockwood-Mathews as well.

Gilgore, who is marking her 10th year as executive director, said historic places remain static if there are no programs. She says exhibits that keep rekindling an interest in the public are necessary.

“A lot of people feel, ‘Well I’ve seen that historic place already.’ But if you keep refreshing and coming up with new ideas and ideas that really resonate with the general public, with your audience, then they keep coming back and they usually bring other people. And so the support and admissions, they keep growing.”

She says that is why she and Ingis bring in art exhibitions such as the current one:

“It’s an opportunity for us to show lovely work that is pleasing to the eye and that the visitor will enjoy. …Visitors I think will come in here and start a conversation about this with the docent and with each other. So it’s a way to continue enjoying the mansion in a different dimension that’s more contemporary.  …It’s reaching out to the communities and bringing visitors in and see the mansion and support it, so the mansion can continue to live for many generations to come. That is why we do this.”

And is it working?

“We just analyzed the admissions from 2013 and 2018 and we have grown 60%, which is remarkable. All of this plays a role and I am very excited and delighted to know that what we are doing here obviously works.”

When you head over to check out the show, ask for Ingis to give you the tour. And if she’s not available, ask for Gilgore. If both are available, leave a sizable tip/donation.

For more, lockwoodmathewsmansion.com.

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