Athena Society opts to scoop up Wyeth’s ‘Wales Farm’

VERO BEACH – Like children heading to an Easter egg hunt, members of the Athena Society spilled into the lobby of the Vero Beach Museum.

Politely clasping the hand of Lucinda Gedeon, the museum director and orchestrator of the evening strode toward the hall where the cache of artworks hung. An annual event since 2003, the dinner is one of the most anticipated of the museum’s many affairs and the stage for a democratic process that selects a major purchase for the permanent collection.

Democratic – sort of. Each of the 83 members marks a ballot, but not without first adding a $5,000 premium to the $1,500 top-tier donor level to allow them into the Athena Society.

The Athena members stood before the art offerings, shipped to the museum at considerable effort for consideration.

The stature of the guests – let alone the artwork – lent an aura of honor to the evening. Without interest of this ilk, the museum might not be.

“The Wyeth is a shoe-in,” whispered one guest, an Athena veteran. “With this crowd? No question.”

He was right.

The watercolor won the group’s vote, hands down. Called “The Wales Farm,” the painting features Wyeth’s hallmark barn, billowing curtain and harsh worn fencing set against a soft hedge of trees.

The museum’s new curator, Jay Williams, said the painting is an excellent example of Wyeth.

At $405,000, it was also by far the most expensive of the choices.

In prior years, the society voted to acquire two paintings in lieu of one pricey one, or to buy one and roll the remainder of that year’s budget into the next year’s selection.

The work that drew the longest stares at Wednesday evening’s gathering was a video installation by Bill Viola, called “Six Heads.”

The video on plasma display featured the head of the same balding, bearded man contorting in extreme slow motion into expressions of various emotions.

Another of Viola’s work, “The Greeting,” was lent to the museum for exhibition in late 2008 by Richard and Pamela Kramlich, residents of Windsor, who are considered among the foremost collectors of video art.

Perhaps the most charming of the options was Susan Rothenberg’s sunny work, “Yellow Studio.”

The vast canvas was the backdrop of a New York Times photo from her show a year ago at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in New Mexico.

Rothenberg moved to New Mexico from New York a decade ago, along with her husband, the equally renowned multimedia artist Bruce Nauman.

Best known for her vibrant, rough-edged paintings of horses in the 1970s, Rothenberg has gone on to focus on scenes of powerful, often fleeting, and otherwise ordinary moments.

In the case of “Yellow Studio,” the viewer looms over her shoulder to see her arms holding a book at the bottom of the canvas, her sleeping dog on its back beside her and much of the balance of the canvas a yellow empty plane.

A small watercolor and gouache by Oscar Bluemner, “New Hampshire Town,” was offered as a rare example of that artist’s work.

Bluemner exhibited in the landmark Armory Show of 1913 and is considered a pivotal force in the creation of the American Modernist movement.

Williams explained that the donation to Deland’s Stetson University of 1,000 works by Bluemner’s daughter has made his paintings harder to acquire.

A sculpture of an accordion-pleated bow, a bronze on stainless by Lynda Benglis seemed a particularly feminine offering, executed by a woman known for her earlier and far more explicit evocations of gender issues, some reflecting what she considered a diminished role of women in the art world.

Whether that aspect of her body of work informed the Athena Society vote, the bronze was admired by at least two women that evening, who remarked that it would add to the museum’s growing collection of three-dimensional art.

Sculpture, in particular very large outdoor pieces, have become a signature of the museum, said Williams, who points to the museum’s sculpture garden as a proud example of its willingness to fund the care and preservation of exterior artwork for the public.

Like kids in the garden at Easter, the guests bypassed the four creations set out by Gedeon.

Delectable though they were, the crowd went straight for the Wyeth, the big boxed chocolate bunny of the evening.

Only the hostess of the hunt – Gedeon, knows if the overlooked works may turn up in next year’s basket; she has been known to re-egg.

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