UNCG Campus Weekly

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Curator Elaine Gustafson creates inviting space to view Cone Sisters’ gifts to Weatherspoon

Elaine Gustafson is first and foremost a teacher. And she has a lot to share about the fascinating Cone sisters, Claribel and Etta.

In the Weatherspoon exhibition space, she points out portraits of the two – the older Claribel, in her stiff Edwardian dress, who went to medical school, graduating first in her class. And Etta, the ninth of the 13 siblings, in charge of the family’s domestic arrangements – and with her passion for music and arts. When brother Moses Cone gave her $300 to spruce up the Baltimore home, she spent it all on art. They were quite liberated, for their time, the curator notes. “However they chose to dress conservatively, in an almost Renaissance style.”

The exhibition “The Cone Sisters Collect” recently opened in the Weatherspoon. Organized by Gustafson, curator of collections since 2008, it presents a sampling of their gift to the Weatherspoon six decades ago.

Sisters of prominent Greensboro textile magnates and philanthropists Moses and Caesar Cone, the women frequently traveled from their Baltimore home to Europe to purchase art in the first decades of the 20th century.

Their circle included artists, musicians and writers. Gertrude Stein was a friend. So was Henri Matisse. They were early patrons of Matisse, important to him financially. “When they started buying (his works) – it started in 1906 – he was considered insane, because he was using these bright colors and abstracting. He was not selling commercially. They really provided important financial support for him…” The sisters bequeathed the Weatherspoon six Matisse bronze sculptures and 71 of his works on paper.

“They supported Picasso early on, as well,” she adds, moving to another part of the room with Picasso works. They purchased his work during his early career, when the “Harlequin” was a common theme, and later in his abstract, cubist period. Both eras are represented in the exhibition.

Their collection is “eclectic,” as visitors may see. Japanese prints over here. Etchings by Rembrandt over there. Contemporary Baltimore artists they supported. Their sisters’ home was filled with treasures.

In 1949, Etta Cone, the surviving sister, bequeathed part of their collection to the Weatherspoon Art Museum. Among the 242 objects are the several dozen on view in this special exhibition.

Once you’ve seen the art, have a seat on the sofa Gustafson installed, with coffee-table books about the sisters, samplings of their letters, and more. And consider you’re in their home. Fact is, their home had many of these works hanging all about the walls.

In the paint scheme for the gallery, Gustafson even used one of their favorite colors, an Edwardian shade of green.

In a display are clothing and personal items. She steps to the display table in the center of the room. A 1914 letter, she points out, reveals that Claribel was not stuck in Germany at the start of World War I, as some have thought. “If you read the letter you see that she chose to stay in Germany because she found it really fascinating.” She ended up staying for years.

As curator, Gustafson wanted visitors to get a sense of the sisters’ personalities. “I feel these personal effects make you feel more connected to the sisters.” The curator sees that objects tell stories. In that sense, “they’re living things.”

The name Cone is all around Greensboro, she notes: Cone Health System, Cone Boulevard, Cone Elementary. Cone Art Building…. “This family has been important to Greensboro and important to the Weatherspoon.” The exhibition has given her the opportunity to learn much more about the two sisters. “They led fascinating lives.”

Appreciating art involves more than considering the pieces on display – there so many facets to convey to museum visitors. “I was pre-med (at Wheaton College in Massachusetts),” Gustafson explains when asked how her career began. “I had to take a freshman course requirement in the humanities. I took Art History – and fell in love with it. I realized Art History has everything – politics, religion, literature, science, perspectives…”

As the museum’s curator of collections, she helps visitors – whether students or the general public – consider them all.

The Weatherspoon’s exhibition is in conjunction with a traveling exhibition by the Baltimore Museum of Art, currently on view at Duke University’s Nasher Museum.

  • Enjoy the talk “Etta Cone’s Displays of Comprehension” by Dr. Porter Aichele (UNCG professor emerita of Art) on Sunday, Nov. 18, at 2 p.m. at the Weatherspoon.

By Mike Harris