American masterworks

Smithsonian Art Museum acquires finest Amish quilt collection, a ‘national treasure’

LEFT: Center Square, 1930, 70 x 57 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown. RIGHT: Sunshine and Shadow, 1930, 89 x 86 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown. — Faith and Stephen Brown LEFT: Center Square, 1930, 70 x 57 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown. RIGHT: Sunshine and Shadow, 1930, 89 x 86 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown. — Faith and Stephen Brown

The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., has received a gift of masterpiece Amish quilts, the largest and most significant collection of its kind to enter a major art museum’s permanent collection.

Made between the 1880s and 1940s, the quilts embody the design innovation and stitching skills of Amish women from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states.

Collectors Faith and Stephen Brown of Tiburon, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay area, have donated about 40 quilts and will eventually give their entire collection of 130.

The first 40 will be part of an exhibition, scheduled for 2024, highlighting ways Amish quilters across the United States negotiated tradition and innovation.

“The Browns’ Amish quilt collection is a national treasure, a collection of rare and exceptional textiles carefully compiled over 40 years,” said Kevin Gover, under secretary for museums and culture at the Smithsonian.

The Browns were inspired to collect Amish quilts after seeing an exhibition in 1973 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery. Since then, the couple has amassed one of the nation’s premier collections of Amish quilts.

“The Smithsonian American Art Museum has long championed an expansive view of what constitutes art worthy of being collected and preserved as part of our national collections,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “We found similar visionaries in collectors Faith and Stephen Brown, who recognized the exceptional contributions to American visual culture that Amish quilters have made.”

The Browns said: “We were fascinated that Amish women, with no artistic training or exposure, composed masterpieces, which improbably anticipated modern abstract art. We hope that others will find the same joy of discovery we felt when we first viewed these beautiful and moving creations.”

Before the late 1960s, Amish quilts were little known beyond their communities. The “Sunday-best” quilts, such as the examples the Browns collected, were usually made as wedding gifts rather than as items for daily use. They covered beds on days when the family hosted worship meetings in their home.

Once discovered by art collectors, the quilts — featuring bold colors and abstract patterns —were lauded for their visual power and striking congruence with the visual culture of modern art.

“Faith and Stephen Brown brought a keen eye to their collecting efforts, selecting examples that are among the finest hand-quilted works ever made,” said Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “The Browns’ collection stands apart from other compilations of Amish quilts, with multiple examples from individual Amish communities across the U.S., rather than having focused on a single region or group.

“This remarkable array of quilts illuminates the work of women who never sought attention for their creativity but were driven to embody traditional and spiritual values in handmade objects and to unite beauty and utility within the domestic realm.

“The women in each community pushed the limits of tradition, with pattern and color variations that came to be seen as signature styles for their settlements — united but distinct.”

In addition to the artworks, the Browns’ gift includes funds to establish an endowment for the care of the collection.

Quilts are regularly on view in the museum’s permanent collection galleries in Washington. Temporary special exhibitions have included “Quilts of the Indiana Amish” (1987), “Calico and Chintz: Early American Quilts from the Smithsonian American Art Museum” (1996 and on tour 2003-04), “Spirits of the Cloth: Contemporary Quilts by African American Artists” (2000) and an exhibition of quilts from frontier states made in the early 20th century, “Going West: Quilts and Community” (2008). “Amish Quilts from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown,” organized by the University of Michigan Museum of Art, was presented at the museum’s Renwick Gallery in 2000.

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