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Gathering places: Diane Forsberg in the Arkell’s new Great Hall.

Gems Along the Mohawk

In 1925, Beech-Nut mogul Bartlett Arkell established the Arkell Library and Art Museum for the people of Canajoharie—eight decades later, a $10 million expansion has brought new life to the impressive collection

By Kathryn Lange

Photos By Joe Putrock

Nestled on a shelf in the modest gift shop of the Arkell Museum is a spiral-bound, self- published book compiled by Lavinia C. Wilson—Bartlett Arkell’s Beech-Nut Packing Company: A Pictorial Journey. The title page announces, “The Beech-Nut story is the story of Canajoharie.” Wandering the exhibits of the newly expanded Arkell Museum, in which fine art blends seamlessly with local history, Wilson’s statement rings truer with each step. The Beech-Nut story is the story of Canajoharie. And the story of the Arkell Museum is the story of Beech-Nut, the story of industry at its brightest, and of a man whose generosity, love of art, and fierce loyalty to his boyhood town gave Canajoharie one of small-town America’s most remarkable collections of great American art.

Bartlett Arkell founded the Imperial Packing Company in 1891; seven years later, he changed the company’s name to Beech-Nut to better represent his goal of providing healthful, fresh food. The company brought Arkell quick and enduring prosperity—prosperity he shared with the people of Canajoharie. The museum’s archives of photos and stories depict seemingly idyllic factory life. A woman plays piano in the factory while workers clad in white cotton caps and dresses jar fruit; “Gum Girls” in bright drummerette uniforms grin in front of the Beech-Nut Circus Bus, its long windows revealing a miniature animated tin circus, complete with acrobats and dancing bears; in the Beech-Nut lunchroom, workers dine under skylights, surrounded by lush plants, while behind them hangs Mother Earth, a monumental painting by Edward Gay, first exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair.

Modern cynicism might send skeptics searching for the gritty truth, for the scowling faces, the bandaged hands. But the pictures, the stories, even the smoke still rising from the Beech-Nut stacks across the street soon have one believing that this could truly be the image of industry as it should be. An article published in the April 4, 1925, issue of the Journal of Commerce describes Arkell’s decision not to sell his company as “conspicuously loyal to his boyhood town.” He was offered $17 million for Beech-Nut, and responded that he would not sell during his lifetime to anyone at any price, since it would be disloyal to his friends and fellow workers.

That same year, Arkell announced plans to build the Arkell Library and Art Gallery in memory of his father, New York state Sen. James Arkell. It is, perhaps, the museum itself that stands as his most enduring testament. Arkell initially founded the gallery as part of the public library, centered around a small collection of paintings. He wanted to share the fine art he had enjoyed on his travels with the people back home, so he commissioned reproductions of his favorites—mostly Dutch masterpieces—and housed them in a warm, one-room gallery designed to reflect the Nightwatch gallery in Amsterdam. A reproduction of Rembrandt’s massive Nightwatch occupies the far wall of the gallery to this day.

The Arkell collection grew to include great American art, which garnered the most acclaim and has since become the core of the museum’s collection. From 1925 until his death in 1946, Arkell continued to acquire examples of the finest late 19th- and early 20th-century American art—not for his private collection, but for public viewing in the museum. Today, the American collection boasts more than 20 oils and watercolors by Winslow Homer, and works by Andrew Wyeth, Fredrick Remington, Edward Hopper, Maurice Prendergast, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, George Inness, Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Henri, and Childe Hassam, among others. The museum’s treasures also include a collection of images and artifacts documenting the history of the Mohawk Valley, a modest decorative arts collection, and a comprehensive collection of Beech-Nut advertising art and memorabilia, including original paintings by Edward Gay and Norman Rockwell. Almost all of the more than 350 paintings were personally donated by Arkell. It is a notable collection for any location, but for a small manufacturing town tucked in the hills along the Erie Canal, it is extraordinary.

For more than 80 years, the significance of the collection went largely unrecognized in the region. It had far outgrown its one-room home; the bulk of the collection was in storage off-site, gradually rotating through the small gallery. Selections from the collection toured from the Midwest (Illinois and Oklahoma) to around the world (including China and Great Britain), but at home in Canajoharie, the collection didn’t have room to shine.

Until now—thanks to funding from the Arkell Hall Foundation, originally endowed by Bartlett Arkell’s sister, Bertelle Arkell Barbour, in 1948. According to foundation president and CEO Joseph Santangelo, the foundation was established with a mission of promoting and enhancing the community of Canajoharie, from health care and education to cultural life. The foundation funded the recent renovation and expansion of the gallery, which opened its doors in September as the Arkell Museum.

Something old, something new: the original gallery (left) and a newly added exhibit space (right).

When the local high school adjacent to the library and gallery announced plans to move, the Arkell Hall foundation recognized the importance of the downtown real estate. They purchased the property, and began discussing how it could best be used to improve the community. “We realized we could redevelop the parcel using the resources we already had, to put the collection to better use for the community, raising awareness and enhancing the economic potential for Canajoharie,” said Santangelo. And after a $13 million investment, “now the museum has a home more suited to the stature of the collection.”

The 18,000-square-foot expansion, designed by Boston-based firm designLAB architects, is bright and contemporary, inspired by the neighboring Beech-Nut factory, and blends seamlessly with the original stone building, even incorporating the masonry of the old exterior walls into fresh exhibit spaces. The rolling grounds were shaped to echo the local landscape, which was precious to Arkell and features prominently in the current exhibition Mohawk Valley Views. Three new gallery spaces have been added, along with classrooms, offices, and the Great Hall, where community gatherings take place among historic images. Boston concrete artist Tom Schulz was commissioned to paint a vast map of the region on the floor—visitors can walk the loose county lines, find their hometown or where they stopped for lunch. A sign in a vacant display invites people to offer their contemporary photographs of the historic sites pictured in the hall.

Museum curator Diane Forsberg flits through the galleries, unlocking doors on a snowy morning. She pauses by a huge photo: Arkell in front of the Beech-Nut factory, a flock of workers flanking him to the left, citizens of Canajoharie on his right. He is small, round and noble in a three-piece suit, with a glint of mischief in his eye. “A lot of people still have very fond feelings for Bartlett Arkell,” she says. “It’s interesting; his impact was such that people still think of him very fondly for what he did for the community.”

Lights turn on as she opens doors, off again as she closes them—designed to “preserve the artwork first, and also to save energy,” she says. She settles briefly on a luxuriously cushioned, hand-carved wooden bench in the original gallery, purchased for the space by Arkell’s wife. She runs her hands over the upholstery, recounting her efforts searching through swatches for fabric that would best reflect the original design, offhandedly demonstrating her meticulous care in blending the art and history the Arkells left as their legacy.

The original gallery space—now called the Arkell American Art Gallery—is at once cozy and regal, with a fireplace, richly tiled floor and arched ceiling. Here hangs a permanent exhibit of some of the museum’s favorite works from the American collection. The two new galleries are crisp and contemporary, partially lit by carefully designed skylights and warmed by smoky wheat and russet walls. These new spaces hold changing exhibitions, designed to place the art in context, to connect the art with the history and ideas that inspired it.

The current exhibitions highlight the museum’s collection. Mohawk Valley Views displays the local landscape through the shifting lenses of art and era. The recent Fragile Masterpieces: Pastels and Watercolors from the Permanent Collection, which demonstrated the versatility of a single media in the hands of the masters, has been replaced by the newest exhibition, Famous and Fabulous Portraits from George Washington to the Golden Girl. Among the works featured in the portrait show are Gilbert Stewart’s Portrait of George Washington. This iconic image of America’s first president is probably in your pocket, reproduced on the dollar bill. A letter penned by Washington concerning the conditions of nearby Fort Plain rests in a glass case at the room’s center, binding art and history and community. Portraits by Sargent, Henri, Cassatt and others grace the walls, all in their exquisite original frames.

“We opened with the permanent collection, because it has been away for so long. People missed it,” says Forsberg. The exhibitions in the new gallery spaces will shift regularly, sending some favorites into storage temporarily, making room for new pieces and new connections. According to Forsberg, there is much to look forward to. “This summer we’re borrowing Wyeth paintings from the Farnsworth in Maine, doing an entire exhibition of Wyeths. In March we’re having an exhibition on Judge and Punch magazine illustrations.” Bartlett Arkell’s brother William served as Judge’s editor and publisher. The museum is building on the images in the Arkell collection, borrowing from the University of Michigan for an exhibition of ethnic and immigrant caricatures from the late 19th century through World War I.

“We want to show things in our collection that people don’t know about and haven’t seen before,” says Forsberg. “The favorites will come back, but they will come back in a new context, juxtaposed with other images, with new ideas.”

The expansion has enabled the museum to further its mission to “present American art, culture and local history that engages, inspires and educates.” In addition to the expanded galleries, the museum now has a full-time education curator, and space to hold adult workshops, family days, concerts and film and lecture series.

“There are lots of ways to blend history and art, and I want to keep doing that. We plan to use the collection of paintings to explore different topics in history with our lecture series and our children’s programming,” says Forsberg. She also emphasizes the museum’s importance as a cultural center, adding, “Galleries don’t need to be austere. They can be social places where people interact and have fun.”

Arkell built a regional treasure, a collection of art for the people, a unifying experience for his community, and the expansion reflects those values. Local residents are admitted at no cost with their library card. Admission is nominal for out-of-towners. The grounds and gardens are open to the public; the facilities can be rented for special occasions. It is a comfortable place to explore and discover.

At the recent opening for the portrait exhibition, people mingled through the galleries, sampled desserts, sipped wine and coffee. A Cajun band played in the Great Hall, their accordion and mandolin melodies wafting through the galleries, infusing the place with an easy sense of community and past. Friends and couples waltzed, and not perfectly, skimming along the rivers and county lines of the Mohawk Valley.

Eighty years and more than $13 million dollars after Bartlett Arkell opened the doors of the Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery, the world has certainly been transformed. But in this quiet canal town, the Arkell Museum is ensuring that the sprit of community and inspiration endures.

klange@metroland.net


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