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Assume the juxtaposition: selections from Show Off..

Personal Favorites
By David Brickman

Show Off: Directors Select From Their Museum Collections
Albany International Airport Gallery, through Feb. 16

When is something a work of art, and when is it merely an artifact? You may find yourself less sure than you thought about the answer to that question after viewing Show Off at the Albany International Airport Gallery.

Inspired in part by the success of two recent shows of unusual private collections, curator Sharon Bates and guest Charles Stainback assembled the fascinating display after the directors of 55 museums in the Capital Region (geographically undefined, but in this case stretching from Lake Placid in the north to Staatsburg in the south, and from Cooperstown east to North Adams, Mass.) each chose one favorite object from their institutions’ holdings. To fully encompass an array this diverse, the word eclectic would need at least a couple more syllables.

How to sum it up in a short review? Allow me to just meander among the highlights and recommend that you go see for yourself—the gallery is open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, so you have ample opportunity.

Among my favorite items in this show are two that do not defy the art/artifact conundrum. No human hand was involved in the creation of the New York State Museum’s Randolph mammoth skull—it’s definitely an artifact—but transporting and installing the 4-foot skull with 9-foot tusks must have been a feat of superhuman proportions.

Equally weighty, and an undeniably masterful work of art, is Isamu Noguchi’s massive sculpture Study for Black Sun from the Empire State Plaza Art Collection. A 5-foot wheel of cast iron with marvelously seductive notches, it takes the medium of horseshoes and andirons to an otherworldly dimension.

Between these impressive bookends are things unassuming and grand, meticulously crafted and spontaneous, functional and fearsome. The layout is such that intriguing juxtapositions are not only possible—they are impossible to avoid.

Who, for example, could resist being touched by the pairing of a 1770 document created for the purpose of presentation to Indians who had performed special service to the king of England (from the Johnson Hall State Historic Site) and a copy of the last known photo of Civil War hero and former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, taken days before he succumbed to throat cancer (from the Grant Cottage State Historic Site)?

Another such symbolic connection was created within a submission by the director of Historic Cherry Hill, who combined a wooden vise with a silver-and-glass mustard pot to represent how the house’s old-money occupants felt squeezed “from above by new millionaires, and from below by the immigrant working class.”

More celebratory in nature is the offering from the Albany County Historical Association at Ten Broeck Mansion. Consisting of a wooden wine case, straw bottle covers and bottles of rare vintage wine, the display tells the story of a treasure trove of potables that were discovered in a sealed chamber of the house and auctioned off in 1977 to raise funds so the place could be preserved.

Other delights come in the form of a recently acquired addition to the collection at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (who knew they were still buying stuff?) and a Welsh slate fan from the Slate Valley Museum. The former is a lovely silvered bronze Hebe and the Eagle of Jupiter by 18th-century French sculptor Jules Franceschi; the latter is an exquisitely handmade (but apparently useless) object that demonstrates the versatility of the quarried stone.

Throughout the exhibition space, the hauntingly beautiful sounds of digitally manipulated chimes can be heard coming from the MASS MoCA entry, a descriptive panel and sound installation based on the renovation of the former factory’s clocktower by artist Christina Kubisch.

One of the great benefits of this show, and perhaps its raison d’être, is that it makes you realize how many museums there are around here—not just the big-name places like the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery (which submitted a copy of artist Ed Ruscha’s groundbreaking 1966 book Every Building on the Sunset Strip), the Williams College Museum of Art (a gorgeous train photograph by O. Winston Link) or the Albany Institute of History & Art (a ravishingly detailed cast-iron parlor stove).

It’s the discovery of a Seneca Ray Stoddard panoramic photograph of the Fort William Henry Hotel—together with the circa-1910 camera that made it—from the Chapman Historical Museum, or an anonymous Amish quilt from the New York Folklore Society, or the bamboo-structured replica of a 1909 Demoiselle aircraft (also known as the “infuriated grasshopper”) from the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Museum, that really makes this show worthwhile.

And there’s much, much more. From the elegant simplicity of the Shaker Museum and Library’s oval box to the elaborately furnished three-story (plus attic) dollhouse from the collection of the Rensselaer County Historical Society, Show Off lives up to its name.

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