The current Holmes Gallery exhibition at the Vero Beach Museum of Art purports to follow the history of the guitar from its roots in the ancient oud to the relatively recent development of the electric guitar in the U.S.
“Medieval to Metal: The Art & Evolution of the Guitar” is a traveling art installation produced by the National Guitar Museum. The word “museum” implies a brick and mortar building with galleries and collection storage, perhaps a performance area and a museum shop – but the National Guitar Museum, a privately-held company established in 2008, has none of those. Its mailing address is a residential home in Fairfield, Conn.
It does have a collection of about 250 guitars, according to founder and CEO Harvey P. Newquist, and roughly two thirds of them have been traveling in two exhibitions since 2011. “Medieval to Metal” is aimed at art museum display, while “Guitar: The Instrument that Rocked the World” is marketed toward science and history museums featuring displays geared toward guitar construction, acoustics and the nature of sound itself.
Your first glimpse of the current exhibition may focus on the 40 identical black cases that line the walls of the gallery; their design looks like a cross between a telephone booth and a sci-fi transporter. Each one displays a stringed instrument with its corresponding text panel. Some of the instruments, like the oud and lute, are predecessors of the guitar. The lion’s share of the show is devoted to the development of, and variations on, the electric guitar. As it arrived at the VBMA, the full exhibition contains 60 objects; the 20 not on view will spend their time in Vero Beach behind the scenes, in storage.
Newquist says that there is a discussion at every venue as to which pieces will be included in that particular setting.
He adds, “There are some that we always show, because we feel they are the core of the exhibit.”
One of the cases in the gallery appears to be empty. A glance at the text panel inside reveals that we are looking at an air guitar, which, says Newquist, is included in every presentation of this show.
“It’s the one that everybody has always asked for. Every place that we’ve ever been like, ‘Bet you don’t have an air guitar!’”
The instruments on view are a mixed bag. The oldest object is the “Romantic Guitar” made by the German company Goldklang around 1890. It is intriguing for the carved web of wood – complete with a tiny spider at its center – that fills the guitar’s sound hole. The vihuela, predecessor to the modern acoustic guitar, is displayed nearby. This vihuela is a modern reproduction (crafted by U.S. luthier, Daniel Larson) of a precious 16th century instrument owned by the Cité de la Musique museum in Paris. Others in this section, the theorbo and the Baroque guitar, are also beautifully crafted reproductions.
Some instruments are readily obtainable examples of their kind; including the sloppily crafted oud on display. Most of the late-20th century guitars in the show were mass produced; the Fender Stratocaster, designed in 1954, is still in production.
“You can buy an identical one today,” says Newquist.
There are also some hand-crafted electric guitars on view; notable among these is an eccentrically gorgeous lyre-shaped model by Di Donato Guitars of Venice, Italy.
Most of the pieces in the show, however, are not particularly rare or valuable. As a whole, this offering can best be described as a study collection, one that can endure the rigors of travel and handling by everyone from shippers, to museum preparators to, well, anyone Newquist invites to try one out, beginning with himself.
“I play all of them, every year,” he boasts.
Newquist adds that he allowed Dane Roberts, the museum’s membership coordinator, to play the exhibition’s translucent, cherry red B.C. Rich Warlock electric guitar. Its aggressively angled styling – more like a piece of weaponry than a musical instrument – has made it the darling of heavy metal guitarists for nearly 40 years. One like it can be purchased for a few hundred dollars.
When asked why he thinks the objects in “Medieval to Metal” are art objects, Newquist has several answers, none of which address the question.
“This show is about the evolution of the guitar. Mostly the guitar is a workhorse. It is not about the aesthetics of the look, it is about the sound,” he says.
The objects on display, he explains, are “the physical manifestation of music.”
That is to say, musical instruments make the art of music possible, and must therefore be considered part of music’s art.
He adds that, although his first consideration was to exhibit objects that would illustrate the historical development of the guitar, some of the instruments “show a level of design and craftsmanship that you would normally associate with an artist.”
Newquist said that the idea to create a guitar museum began with his own collection, which he and his wife displayed on the walls of their home. Newquist’s fascination with the instrument began in 1974, when he was a young teen intent on learning to play. Ten years later he was the lead guitarist in a band called “Thief” that included two of his brothers and a friend. Not part of that group, a younger sibling, Jimmy Newquist, gained notice as the primary songwriter, guitarist and lead singer for the alternative rock band “Caroline’s Spine.”
While Harvey P. Newquist did not find rock stardom, the University of Notre Dame graduate did attain prominence in the 1980s as a business analyst in the artificial intelligence industry. Changing course in the 1990s, he was editor in chief of Guitar Magazine “for a good portion” of that decade. As H.P. Newquist he is currently an author of books on “weird science.” His published works include “The Great Brain Book: An Inside Look at the Inside of Your Head” of 2005 (it won kudos from the National Science Teachers Association and the Children’s Book Council); “This Will Kill You: A Guide to the Ways in Which We Go” of 2009; and “The Book of Blood” of 2012.
In between bouts of writing, his career as the chief curator of the National Guitar Museum keeps Newquist touring with the museum’s two traveling exhibitions. As separate entities they have been installed in more than two dozen public venues over the past seven years.
“We are booked into 2020 for both exhibits and we do six a year. Three of each exhibit,” Newquist says.
Like his books, which are chock-full of factual nuggets aimed at a general audience, Newquist’s guitar exhibitions are for people who know what they like – and they like their learning sweetened with entertainment.
He refers to the shows as “gateways,” because they lure in “those people who otherwise might not visit an art museum.”
Newquist seems convinced that the first heady whiff of his guitar show will somehow produce a new crop of art addicts who will scramble to buy museum memberships – or at least show up for another VBMA offering.
Concerning the construction of a building to house the National Guitar Museum, Newquist says that plans to “settle down” keep getting moved back. “Now we are looking at maybe 2022,” he says.