Smithsonian American Art Museum receives major gift of extraordinary Amish quilts

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Smithsonian American Art Museum receives major gift of extraordinary Amish quilts
59 Sunshine and Shadow,1930, 89 x 86 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown. Image courtesy of Faith and Stephen Brown.

WASHINGTON, DC.- The Smithsonian American Art Museum has received an extraordinary gift of masterpiece Amish quilts from the collection of Faith and Stephen Brown. The group of quilts is the largest and most significant collection of Amish quilts to enter any major art museum’s permanent collection. The quilts were made between the 1880s and 1940s and embody the astonishing design innovation and stitching skills of Amish women from communities in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states. An initial group of approximately 40 donated quilts will be featured in an upcoming exhibition organized by the museum, scheduled for March 15, 2024 through Sept. 2, 2024. The exhibition and accompanying catalog will highlight the ways in which Amish quilters across the United States negotiated tradition and innovation. The Brown’s entire collection, approximately 130 quilts, will be donated to the Smithsonian American Art Museum by gift, promised gift or bequest.

“The Brown’s Amish quilt collection is a national treasure, a collection of rare and exceptional textiles carefully compiled over forty years.” said Kevin Gover, under secretary for museums and culture at the Smithsonian. “Among the Smithsonian’s great strengths is the ability to make history come to life through extraordinary works of art such as these.”

The Browns were inspired to collect Amish quilts after seeing an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery in 1973. Since then, the couple has amassed one of the nation’s premier collections of Amish quilts. Selections from their collection have been seen at major museums across the United States, most recently in 2009 at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s de Young Museum.

“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. We are honored to care for these works, and eager to share them and the visual joy they bring with the public.”

"We are honored to present this gift to the nation and are delighted to find an ideal home for our collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum," said Faith and Stephen Brown. "Our passion for Amish quilts began after seeing an exhibition at its Renwick Gallery more than 45 years ago. 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 items for daily use, and covered beds on days when that family hosted worship meetings in their home. Once discovered by art collectors, the quilts were lauded for their visual power and striking affinities to the visual culture of modern art. The bold colors and abstract patterns were likened to the paintings of Paul Klee, Ellsworth Kelly, Joseph Albers and others.

“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 US, 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 Brown’s gift includes funds to establish an endowment for the care of the collection. The Faith and Stephen Brown Quilt Care Endowment will support efforts related to the museum’s display, storage and conservation of the Brown Quilt Collection. The Smithsonian American Art Museum has championed the work of untrained and communally trained artists as an embodiment of the democratic spirit since 1970, when it acquired and preserved James Hampton’s iconic “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly.” It is one of the only major American museums to advocate for a diverse populist voice within the context of what is traditionally considered great art. The museum shows folk and self-taught art throughout the museum and has had dedicated gallery spaces for such work for nearly 50 years. Recent exhibitions include the critically acclaimed “Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor” (2018), “Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits” (2015) and “Untitled: The Art of James Castle” (2014).

The museum has a longstanding commitment to showing quilts as fine art. Quilts are regularly on view in the museum’s permanent collection galleries, and 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 2003-2004), “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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