Making Room for American Art

American art was something of an afterthought for Henry and Arabella Huntington when they lived in San Marino in the early 20th century. Maybe it’s coincidental, but for the past 30-plus years, the growing collection of American art at their former estate, the Huntington Library, has reflected this.
The Huntingtons’ beloved British painters, who created what are now the institution’s two most iconic works — Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” and Lawrence’s “Pinkie” — are showcased in the couple’s stately former mansion, now the Art Gallery.
The American art? Well …
Jessica Todd Smith, chief curator of that collection, made her way across the grounds last week. “Visitors would walk through the Shakespeare Garden, turn the corner and see this,” she said, stopping at the boxy, windowless south wings of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries. “It doesn’t exactly scream, ‘Hello! There’s wonderful art in this building.’”
Also, the entrance to the galleries, off a courtyard on the east side of the building, is narrow and nondescript — resembling, in fact, three emergency exits that line up along that wall.
“I walked past it on my first visit to the Huntington,” Smith said. “And this is what I do: I was looking for the galleries. It really did a disservice to the American collections.”
All of this will change with the latest major renovation project at the Huntington, which has seemed to specialize in them lately.
The Scott Galleries are in the midst of an 8,600-square-foot expansion that will open up the stark south façade of the building that currently faces the Rose Garden Tea Room, the so-called Shakespeare Garden and the Herb Garden.
The architectural firm of Frederick Fisher and Partners, which designed the dramatic, glass-fronted entrance on the north side of the building, will do something similar here, creating an aesthetic and welcoming lobby.
A former south-facing courtyard, which was hot and noisy and little-used, will be enclosed, and a number of interior spaces will be reconfigured, creating more galleries. The project will add 5,000 square feet of galleries over eight new rooms. Even a former restroom area will be converted for the display of art.
The Huntington hopes to open the renovated existing spaces next summer, and unveil the new entrance, lobby and added gallery space in the fall of 2016.
Meanwhile, some of the signature works in the collection will still be on view. They’ve been moved to the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery (Henry Huntington’s former garage) as part of a temporary exhibit that opened last weekend.
Once completed, the expanded galleries will be a more suitable home for the Huntington’s burgeoning collection of American art. But there is considerable irony even in that, because of the Huntingtons’ ambivalence toward the genre.
In his foreword to the coffee table book “American Made,” Kevin Salatino, director of the Huntington’s art collection, notes that Henry and Arabella “did not collect American art in depth,” although they did favor some paintings done in Britain by American expatriates, among them John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West and Gilbert Stuart.
And yet, there is this: In 1925, two years before his death, Henry Huntington signed a statement of policy that reads: “It only remains in the future to extend the range of the collection by the gradual addition of the works of other great masters of British and American art.”
“That was prescient of him,” Smith said. “American art wasn’t really regarded as a serious discipline until the 1960s, when scholars took it more seriously. Before that, there was a belief that American art was more derivative and less important.”
Huntington got his wish — more than a half-century later. In 1979, the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation gave the Huntington a gift of 50 American paintings, including works by Mary Cassatt and Edward Hopper. This was the stipulation of the foundation’s namesake, a Pasadena collector and philanthropist who had died a few years before.
The Scott Foundation also provided money for a building to house American works. The collection was off and running.
The Scott Galleries were expanded in recent years, accommodating a collection that now numbers more than 12,000 works, including a trove of photographs and prints.
The new project reconfigures some of the existing spaces. The exhibit that is expected to benefit the most from this is a room devoted to the Arts and Crafts decorative stylings of architects Charles and Henry Greene. Since its establishment in 1990 in a partnership with Pasadena’s Gamble House, the room has always been tucked away in a corner of the Scott Galleries.
“The approach led to an emergency exit,” Smith said, forlornly. “Despite the signage, unless visitors knew to be looking for something around the corner, it was such an architectural dogleg that people who’d been in the gallery thinking they’d seen everything would miss it.”
With the remodel, that side of the building will be opened up, creating better sight lines to treasures such as this.
The reconfigurations and a different color of paint for the walls, Smith added, will allow visitors “to see the art with fresh eyes. It’s a nice opportunity to move things around.”

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