Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Helen C. Gunsaulus: Collector and Curator

Frank and Helen Gunsaulus, 1915
Frank W. Gunsaulus is a recurring character in the story of the Alice T. Miner Museum, appearing most recently in our last post as a mutual friend and fellow collector of Alice and Emma B. Hodge. The close relationship between the Miners and Frank Gunsaulus extended to the rest of the Gunsaulus family and particularly his youngest daughter, Helen. As a young woman, she worked closely with her father to curate and research his collections, and eventually came to occupy an important position in the Chicago museum world in her own right. A recognized expert in Japanese art, she cataloged Alice Miner’s collection of Japanese woodblock prints in 1927.

Helen C. Gunsaulus was born in 1886 in Baltimore, Maryland, where her father was the pastor of Brown Memorial Church. The following year, Rev. Gunsaulus was called to the Plymouth Congregational Church and the family settled in Chicago. Helen attended Ferry Hall School, a girls’ preparatory academy in Lake Forest, Illinois, and then went to the University of Chicago, graduating in 1908. Like many young women of her class and background, she spent a year traveling in Europe after completing her formal education. 

Helen’s work in museums began through her own collecting (a selection of surimono from her collection was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1912) and her work with her father. In 1916, Frank Gunsaulus donated his collection of Japanese sword mounts to the Field Museum of Natural History, and Helen took on the task of preparing a catalog. Three years later, she was formally hired as assistant curator of Japanese ethnology, which (as the museum’s annual report stated) would permit “the systematic and intelligent study and disposition of considerable material in this division...Miss Gunsaulus brings to the work she has undertaken, studious habit and special training, with enthusiasm and aptness for museum practice, as the work thus far done upon the collections in this division gives evidence.” 

Helen Gunsaulus in her office
at the Art Institute, 1920s
In the early 20th century, as more white, middle- and upper-class women were joining the workforce, they found the museum field one of the most friendly and open to them. Unlike professions like law and medicine, which had educational and licensing requirements that were difficult for women to meet, museum work had no universal qualifications. The world of art could also be seen as an extension of the domestic sphere. Women like Helen Gunsaulus, who came from well-to-do families and had been raised to appreciate art and had the means to travel, in addition to being college-educated, were in many ways ideal museum workers.

In 1926, Helen became assistant curator of Oriental Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Although the Department of Oriental Art was only established in 1921, the museum had been collecting Japanese prints and other artworks since the early 1900s and had presented a groundbreaking exhibits of prints (organized by Frank Lloyd Wright) in 1908. Clarence Buckingham’s extensive Japanese print collection was first shown in 1915 and was formally accessioned in 1925. After the death of long-time curator Frederick Gookin in 1936, Helen Gunsaulus took over as Curator of the Clarence Buckingham Print Collection. Though Japanese prints were her specialty, she also wrote on a variety of other subjects, including Japanese textiles, clothing, and masks, Near Eastern embroidery, and Persian pottery.

Helen Gunsaulus (far right) at Heart’s Delight Farm, 1917
It was shortly after her appointment as curator of Oriental art that Helen came to Chazy to catalog Alice Miner’s collection of Japanese prints. The print collection had been assembled by Emma Hodge, perhaps with Helen’s advice. After her visit, Helen wrote to William Miner, saying, “Do not ever mention being indebted to me and mine after all of the generous and beautiful evidences of your friendship. I can never ever repay either if you for your kindness. Anything I can do for you is the greatest satisfaction to me. It was a pleasure to work on the prints and I learned a great deal in studying them and working out their meanings and the names of their makers.” 

Helen lived in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood with her partner, Helen Mackenzie, who also worked at the Art Institute of Chicago (first as curator of the Children’s Museum, and later as the curator of the Gallery of Art Interpretation). They both retired in 1943 and moved to their summer home on Cape Cod, where they were active members of the community, organizing exhibits and other programs at the South Yarmouth public library. When Helen Gunsaulus died in 1954, her extensive collection of Japanese prints went to the Art Institute of Chicago.


Information about Helen Gunsaulus’s life was drawn from census and other records available through, articles in the Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Field Museum publications, and the Chicago Tribune.


Friday, March 10, 2017

A Partner in Collecting: Emma B. Hodge

Publicity photo of Emma B. Hodge
After Alice T. Miner herself, the individual who probably did the most to shape the way the museum looks today is Emma B. Hodge. Her influence is most evident in the ceramic collection, which Alice acquired under her mentorship, but she also donated books, textiles, Japanese prints, and ephemera such as Valentines. An early collector of American folk art, Hodge also played an important role in the Art Institute of Chicago as a patron and a donor.

Emma Blanxius was born in 1862 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the daughter of Christian and Amelia Petterson Blanxius. Like Alice, Emma came from a large family and had three older sisters. By 1870, the Blanxius family had moved to Chicago and as a teenager Emma—whose parents were both immigrants from Sweden—joined the Freja Society, a Swedish and Norwegian choral group. Through the Freja Society she met Walter Hodge, an English immigrant working in a dry-goods store. They were married in 1879 and had three children.

Frank Gunsaulus (left), Emma Hodge (second from right),
and other Central Church Choir members at Heart’s Delight
The 1900 census shows that by that time Hodge was a widow living with her children, her mother, and her sister Jene (both also widowed). She supported her family as a professional musician, singing in the choir of the Central Church in Chicago. This nondenominational church had been established in 1875 and was as much a theatrical venue as it was a religious one. Music was a focal point of its services, and in 1879 it had moved into the newly built Central Music Hall, a multi-use building that held shops and offices along with an auditorium. Emma Hodge had previously been a member of the Plymouth Congregational Church choir, but when its pastor, Frank W. Gunsaulus, moved to Central Church in 1899, she came with him. In addition to singing at church services, the Central Church quartet performed widely throughout the United States, often accompanying Gunsaulus in “musical lectures.”

Quilts from Emma Hodge’s collection on display at
the Art Institute of Chicago, 1915
It’s not clear if Alice Miner originally met Emma Hodge through her friendship with Frank Gunsaulus, or the other way around, but the three of them shared interests in collecting books, ceramics, textiles, and other decorative arts, and were early supporters of the Art Institute of Chicago. Between 1912 and 1915, Hodge and her sister, Jene Bell, lent and then donated over one thousand pieces of American and English ceramics to the Art Institute in honor of their mother Amelia. Hodge also became interested in collecting textiles, particularly quilts and samplers. To Hodge, quilts represented “the story of American women from Jamestown and Plymouth down; the story of their thoughts and hopes and dreams, as well as the skill of their fingers.” Though Hodge and her fellow Colonial Revival-influenced collectors tended to romanticize the past, they also were some of the first people to recognize quilts, samplers, and other women’s work as art.

Embroidered Russian towel
Art Institute of Chicago,
gift of Emma Hodge (1919)
Emma Hodge also understood the power of art and museums to shape public opinion. In 1918 she organized an exhibit at the Art Institute of textiles from Armenia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Russia—all areas that experienced profound suffering during World War I. As one newspaper reporter observed, knowledge of what was currently happening in those regions “looms like a ghost at the feast of enjoyment of color and design.” The beauty of the textiles stood in contrast with the suffering of their makers, and helped to humanize people who might otherwise have seemed distant and foreign to Americans. By generating sympathy for those ravaged by the “war machine,” the exhibit also had the potential to encourage support for organizations like the Red Cross.

Hodge’s 1918 textile exhibit was held in Gunsaulus Hall, a recently opened addition to the Art Institute which had been funded by a $50,000 gift from William and Alice Miner. Even as the Miners turned more of their attention to Chazy and Heart’s Delight Farm, they remained connected to Chicago’s art world through friends like Emma Hodge. As for Emma, she became nationally known as an expert in antiques, and was the frequent recipient of queries from people who believed—or hoped—that they were the owners of some rare and valuable piece. As her obituary notice in the Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago stated, “It was often her uncheering task to reply that these cherished possessions were worth little or nothing, a duty she accomplished with rare tact and kindness.” Until the end of her life in 1928, she remained an “enthusiast and delver into the historical past,” and an “unfailing and patient adviser of the new collector.”


In 1924, Emma Hodge presented Alice Miner with a massive scrapbook of newspaper clippings, programs, photographs, and other material about herself and their mutual friend Frank Gunsaulus. Much of the information in this post comes from the scrapbook. Information was also drawn from Judith A. Barter and Monica Obniski, For Kith and Kin: The Folk Art Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago (2012).