The Barbara Belgrade Spargo Collection: Facets of Modernity (1900-1950)

January 13 - April 1, 2012


Introductory wall panel text for the exhibition


Ignited in 1975, Barbara Spargo's passion for collecting art has become a fruitful and lifelong devotion. The spark was the simple need to decorate the home that she and her husband Al purchased shortly after getting married with maintenance-free fixtures, having "failed to keep indoor plants alive." Visiting small art fairs in Old Saybrook, Mystic, and other towns in Connecticut to purchase decorative artworks by local painters, Barbara quickly developed an eye for artistic talent.

The following year proved to be a turning point, when Barbara was introduced to and fell in love with the dynamic movement and lyrical color of Paul Jenkins' (b. 1923) abstract expressionist canvases during a trip to California. She subsequently traveled to New York to make her first major purchase, a 1976 Jenkins watercolor, and has not looked back since.

Thirty-five years and over 300 acquisitions later, Barbara's home is a repository for an inspiring collection of art, rich in both aesthetic and historic value. Through avid reading, academic study at Wesleyan University, frequent museum and gallery visits, and docent positions at the Florence Griswold Museum and Yale University, Barbara established a strong interest in American art, particularly the Ashcan School, which was also encouraged by her mentor Katherine Degn of Kraushaar Galleries.

Facets of Modernity (1900-1950) presents a selection of highlights from the Barbara Belgrade Spargo Collection and captures Barbara's admiration for Ashcan artists as some of the most daring voices in the history of American art. Approximately one half of the exhibition is dedicated to artworks by members of The Eight, a group of painters led by Robert Henri (1865-1929). Formed in 1907, the group rejected the classical, genteel themes and traditional art practices promoted by conservative academies in favor of a more expressive, individualized approach that was better in touch with the pulse of life in the Industrial Age. Other painters followed suit by turning their attention to urban subject matter and scenes of daily life, particularly those of the poor and immigrant classes, which had been either invisible or overly sentimentalized in academic painting. Collectively, the artistic production of The Eight and their associates became known as the Ashcan School.

Facets of Modernity (1900-1950) also provides a kaleidoscopic view of other artistic developments in the first half of the century as American artists such as Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Max Weber (1864-1920), William Zorach (1887-1966) and others began to adopt and adapt the radical experiments of the European Avant-Gardes. Some of the artworks on display complement the Museum's existing holdings perfectly, while others provide examples of works by artists who are not represented in the Museum collection to show the pluralistic tendencies that characterized art making during one of the most unsettling and transitional periods in American culture.

Barbara Spargo has worked as the Enrichment Director of the Old Saybrook Adult Education Program for the past eleven years and has been a lifelong promoter of learning and growth in her community. The New Britain Museum of American Art is most grateful to Barbara for the promised gift of a substantial portion of her collection to the Museum to be enjoyed by the public for years to come.

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