Happy Birthday, MESDA!

The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, held a gala celebration weekend for its 50th anniversary on October 23 and 24. The anniversary coincides with a major renovation and reinstallation of the period rooms, including two new masterworks galleries for furniture and ceramics. New educational  programming and tours complement these spaces, providing wider range of visitor experience and engagement.

In true Southern fashion, the weekend began with a warm welcome in the form of “BBQ, Bourbon & Bluegrass,” on the lawn in front of the museum. All three headline items were present in force, along with friendly conversation and—for Christian in particular—members of the Trust who he hadn’t had the opportunity to meet previously.

Saturday’s program of lectures reviewed the museum’s history and scholastic efforts over the past fifty years. One program frequently discussed by many of the speakers, including Dale Couch of the Georgia Museum of Art, was the field research. MESDA’s institutional policy has a long history of embracing proactive research, and early on began employing field researchers, who eventually became fondly known as “Frank’s Girls” in reference both to the museum’s founder and the overwhelming skew in the gender demographics of the researchers themselves. While not all of the pieces found and documented by these teams have come into museum collections, it has advanced the knowledge of the artisans and craftspersons working in communities throughout the Southeast, and how the unique characteristics of their workmanship can be identified. This form of field research has become so effective that other organizations, including the Classical Institute of the South, have imitated it in order to discover much about the forgotten history of Southern life and culture that survives in its decorative arts.

The MESDA summer institute, discussed in a rollicking lecture by Trust Governor Tom Savage, is another highlight of the museum’s scholarly programming. A summer boot camp for the decorative arts, it hones the observational and research skills of its participants through a multidisciplinary approach, equipping them to better engage with objects they find both in museum collections and out in the field. Summer Institute alumni have gone on to work in respected institutions all along the east coast and inwards towards the Mississippi, including MESDA’s own chief curator and Vice President of Collections and Research (and Trust Governor) Robert Leath. During his tenure in Winston-Salem, Robert has overseen many of the updates to the galleries and innovations in the interpretive and education programs. Because of these efforts, MESDA’s board surprised him with the rarely bestowed Frank L. Horton Lifetime Achievement award, an honor certainly well-deserved! Robert was presented with a reproduction of a flask in the MESDA collection crafted by the talented Virginia ceramicist Michelle Erickson.


Saturday evening’s gala dinner and auction at the Graylyn estate raised in excess of $200,000 for the MESDA Summer Institute Endowment and was the perfect bookend for a wonderful weekend, providing fine company in fantastic surroundings. The Decorative Arts Trust congratulates MESDA on this milestone anniversary, and we look forward to bringing our members to Winston-Salem next April for our sold-out symposium!

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