Textile Art

A $3 million gift from Avenir Foundation, announced in January 2012, has transformed the department of textile art. The donation endowed the department, funding its staff and program in perpetuity.  It also supported the relocation and significant expansion of the textile art gallery, which opened on May 19, 2013, with its inaugural exhibition, Cover Story. In the adjacent innovative and interactive Nancy Lake Benson Thread Studio, visitors can learn about many aspects of textile art and also try their hand at different techniques, while the PreVIEW space, funded with help from the William H. Donner Foundation, provides a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes work that fuels our textile art exhibitions. The new textile art complex—these three areas plus storage for the majority of the department’s more than 5,000 objects—occupies more than 8,000 square feet on the 6th floor of the North Building. Spun: Adventures in Textile Art, a museum-wide series of textile-related exhibitions joins in the celebration.

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Textile Art Gallery, Level 6, North Building

A $3 million gift from Avenir Foundation, announced in January 2012, has transformed the department of textile art. The donation endowed the department, funding its staff and program in perpetuity. It also began the spectacular metamorphosis of a former storage area in a prime museum location into an elegant new gallery space. A subsequent donation from Nancy Lake Benson underwrote the creation of the Thread Studio, where visitors can learn about many aspects of textile art and participate in interactive activities.

A donation from the William H. Donner Foundation helped fund the PreVIEW space, literally a window into the behind-the-scenes work that fuels our textile art exhibitions: study, examination, and cataloguing of objects; mock ups of displays; photography; conservation and making mounts for exhibition. Mary Ellen Anderson, recognizing the importance of a full-time textile conservator to our increasingly ambitious program, provided support for this position. Recently, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded the museum a $1.5 million matching challenge grant to endow this position as well as additional funding to establish a fellowship in textile conservation.

Cover Story, the inaugural exhibition in the new textile art gallery, explores the many ways that textiles envelop, embellish, and enrich our lives across centuries, continents and cultures. As warming layers they comfort us during sleep or wrap around us like a second skin during our waking hours. We use them to decorate the walls of our homes, cover our furnishings, and carry our belongings. Textiles can confer prestige and indicate status, or provide protection from the elements and supernatural forces. Ceremonial textiles are essential to many religious rites and rituals and can make a space sacred.

The exhibition unfolds in the thematic groupings loosely based on function. The fifty culturally significant and exquisitely crafted covers on view, all from the permanent collection, come from over twenty countries and represent a wide range of techniques. Some objects are more than a thousand years old, while others were made within the last twenty years. They only hint, however, at the depth of the museum’s textile art collection.

The Collection

The origins of the textile art collection date to 1927, with the gift to the museum of a Kashmir shawl—the museum’s first recorded non-American Indian textile. In 1955, Lydia Roberts Dunham was appointed the first curator of textiles, succeeded by Imelda G. DeGraw in 1965, who held that position until her retirement in 1992. During the tenure of these curators the collection grew dramatically, assisted by the creation of the Neusteter Fashion, Costume and Textile Institute in 1962, which for ten years helped support acquisitions and promote artistic appreciation of the collection.

In 1996, Alice Zrebiec, formerly a textile curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was charged as consulting curator to display the collections—among the most popular with museum visitors—after several years of exhibition hiatus. Changing the focus of the department to reflect its position within a museum of fine art and design required assessing and refining the collections and their presentation. This also prompted renaming the department, which was originally known as textiles and costumes, to textile art. With the announcement of the Avenir Foundation gift, Dr. Zrebiec has transitioned from consulting curator to the full-time position of Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art.

When the former textile art gallery reopened in 1997 on level six of the North Building of the museum, it was named in honor of previous benefactors, Bernita and Myron Neusteter. The entire textile art collection, formed by purchases and gifts from many sources, is now known as the Neusteter Textile Collection. The Neusteter Textile Gallery has displayed over 20 changing exhibitions drawn primarily from the permanent collection. Textile exhibitions such as Crazy Quilts and Other Curiosities; For the Greater Glory of God: Ecclesiastical Vestments and Textiles; and Lighter than Air: Gauze Robes from China highlighted specific aspects of the collection while other shows like Cultural Coatings, Fabulous Floral Fabrics, or No Boundaries: Art + Fiber, were thematic and cut cross centuries and countries. From time to time, special solo contemporary artist showcases were installed. Sleight of Hand (see illustration), presented work by 14 contemporary artists who trick the eye with unexpected materials, unusual techniques, and out-and-out illusion. The last show in this space was Irresistible: Multicolored Textiles from Asia, curated by Ronald Otsuka and part of SPUN!

In May 2013 the newly expanded textile art gallery, Nancy Lake Benson Thread Studio, and PreVIEW, opened to the public.

Collection Highlights

A sumptuous set of vestments designed by Gaspard Poncet and woven in Lyon, France, in 1889.

Perhaps the two best known areas of the textile art department are its internationally exhibited and widely published American quilt collection and its extensive holdings of late Qing Dynasty Chinese court robes and textiles (see illustration). This diverse department, however, contains many more riches. Its wide-ranging scope extends from pre-Columbian and Coptic archeological textiles to contemporary works of art in fiber and overlaps culturally and/or chronologically with the departments of Asian art, pre-Columbian art, Spanish Colonial art, painting and sculpture, western art, and modern and contemporary art. Objects under its curatorial charge include all textiles in the Denver Art Museum except American Indian, African and Oceanic textiles, which are collected by the native arts department, and the textiles and rugs in the Herbert Bayer collection.

Notable aspects of the textile art collection include:

  • An internationally recognized collection of more than 300 American quilts. These include examples made and donated by Charlotte Jane Whitehill (1866-1964), a well-known appliqué quilt maker who was a member of an extremely talented group of quilters in Emporia, Kansas, before moving to Denver. Whitehill’s Indiana Wreath quilt and The Matterhorn quilt by Myrtle M. Fortner (1880-1966), were honored by a jury drawn from four major American quilt societies in 1999 as being among the 100 best quilts of the 1900s. Also notable are the mid-19th century quilts, including the extraordinary broderie perse album quilt given to Anna Eliza Pratt; crazy quilts; and Amish and Mennonite quilts. In 2008, Dr. Guido Goldman donated 15 exceptional quilts and 5 coverlets to the collection.
  • More than 100 American coverlets representing overshot, double cloth, and Biederwand techniques and including significant gifts from both Mrs. S. Effie Parkhill and Stewart and Carol Strickler. A coverlet made by Harry Tyler and dated 1835 is one of our most recent additions, a gift of Barbara Poytress Dallow and Earl F. Poytress.
  • The Julia Wolf Glasser collection, given by Mr. and Mrs. Raymond L. Grimes, comprises more than 100 samplers, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries and made in Europe, North and South America.
  • The Charlotte Hill Grant collection of more than 600 Chinese textiles, court robes, and accessories—primarily late Qing Dynasty—acquired by Mrs. Grant in China in the 1920s and 1930s, and subsequently gifted to the museum by her children, James P. Grant and Betty Austin Grant, in 1977.
  • Ecclesiastical vestments and textiles from the Renaissance to the 1900s, particularly the gift of Rev. John Krenzke. Included in the latter is a tour de force set of five vestments: the Angel chasuble, maniple, stole, chalice veil and chalice cover designed by Gaspard Poncet (1820-1892) and woven by the firm of J. A. Henry in 1889 in Lyon, France. (illustrated above).
  • Textiles from India, made for local use as well as resist-dyed palampores created for export to Europe and Indonesia. A new acquisition, a 17th-century embroidered colcha, or bedcover, is a type commissioned by Portuguese merchants living in India for export to their homeland and the courts of Europe. It is on view in Cover Story.
  • Indonesian batik
  • European lace
  • A growing collection of contemporary art in fiber. Recent additions include works by Carol Shinn, Lia Cook and Carol Eckert.
  • Western costume and accessories, both ethnographic and fashion, illustrate specific textile techniques or design movements.
  • There are smaller holdings of Asian carpets, European tapestries, pre-Columbian textiles, Coptic textile fragments, Islamic textiles, and historic European textiles

Past Special Exhibitions

Threads of Heaven: Silken Legacy of China’s Last Dynasty closed on January 29, 2012. It featured more than 90 objects from the DAM’s permanent collection of Chinese court robes and textiles that illustrate aspects of late Qing Dynasty life and culture. The exhibition is traveling to the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, where it opens February 7, 2014. The DAM has recently published a profusely illustrated companion to the exhibition and this portion of the collection, available in The Shop at the Denver Art Museum and the online museum shop.

Other large, major exhibitions such as Ikat: Splendid Silks of Central Asia from the Guido Goldman Collection, Kaleidoscope of Color: Amish Quilts from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown, and Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt (see illustration) brought objects to the Denver public that are not available in our collections or that complement our collections.

Textile Art in other Galleries

Working with other curatorial departments, textile art has lends objects for display in the Asian, pre-Columbian, and Spanish colonial art galleries, thus placing the textiles into a larger cultural context. In turn, objects from Asian art, modern and contemporary, and native arts have been installed in the former textile art gallery to illustrate cross-cultural influences and design parallels.

Publications

Publications by and about the textile art department include:

  • Threads of Heaven: Silken Legacy of China’s Last Dynasty. Denver Art Museum, 2013. Available in the Museum Shop.
  • American Patchwork Quilt: The Denver Art Museum Collection. Tokyo: Kokusai Art, 1986.
  • Secret Splendors of the Chinese Court: Qing Dynasty Textiles from the Charlotte Hill Grant Collection. Denver: Denver Art Museum, 1981. Available in the Museum Shop.
  • 25 Years Couturiers. DeGraw, Imelda G. Denver: Denver Art Museum, 1975.
  • The Denver Art Museum: Quilts and Coverlets. DeGraw, Imelda G. Denver: Denver Art Museum, 1974.
  • Fibre Structures. DeGraw, Imelda G. Denver: Denver Art Museum, 1972.
  • The Neusteter Institute of Fashion, Costume, and Textiles of the Denver Art Museum. Dunham, Lydia Roberts. Denver Art Museum Quarterly. Denver: Denver Art Museum, Winter 1965.
  • Denver Art Museum Quilt Collection. Dunham, Lydia Roberts. Denver Art Museum Quarterly. Denver: Denver Art Museum, Winter 1963.
  • Denver Art Museum Costume Collection. Dunham, Lydia Roberts. Denver Art Museum Quarterly. Denver: Denver Art Museum, Summer 1962.
  • Clothes Make the Man. Bach, Cile M. Denver Art Museum Quarterly. Denver: Denver Art Museum, Spring 1956.

Current Staff

  • Dr. Alice M. Zrebiec, Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art
  • Jane Burke, Curatorial Assistant
  • Stefania Van Dyke, Master Teacher
  • Allison McCloskey, Textile Conservator

Past Staff

  • Lydia Roberts Dunham, Curator, 1955-1962
  • Imelda G. DeGraw, Curator, 1965-1992

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