Drawn to Art

“A summer job that never really ended”

by Will Lindner

thomas_denenbergThomas Denenberg, director of the Shelburne Museum, came to Vermont in 2011 from the Portland Museum in Maine, at a time of promising change.

Near the southern reaches of the Shelburne Museum’s 150-acre campus sits a low-slung, modernist building with a beautiful fieldstone exterior, spacious windows that welcome daylight into an expansive entryway, and tasteful red framing that successfully blends the building with another striking but vastly dissimilar structure nearby: the museum’s famous Round Barn.

Known as the Pizzagalli Center for Arts and Education, the multi-use fieldstone-and-glass building is an anomaly on a campus that consists primarily of 18th- and 19th-century structures plucked from Vermont’s countryside by the museum’s founder, Electra Havemeyer Webb, during the 1950s. They were resituated, exteriors faithfully restored, on 42 acres of the museum’s bucolic setting along U.S. 7.

Walking trails lead to not only the Red Barn, but also the Stagecoach Inn (1783); the Castleton Jail (1890); the Dorset House (1832); a dramatic, two-lane covered bridge; and the 220-foot Ticonderoga — Lake Champlain’s last operating steamship, which the museum transplanted laboriously to its landlocked berth in 1955.

In all, there are some 38 sites, tastefully spread across the campus.

But the importance of the Pizzagalli Center, which was completed in 2013 as part of a $14.8 million campaign, is that it enabled the Shelburne Museum to become a year-round attraction and cultural institution for the first time since Webb incorporated it in 1947.

To be clear, the rest of the campus, except for a small welcome center, remains seasonal, open from May through mid-October. Nevertheless, says director Thomas Denenberg, the Pizzagalli Center enables the museum to embrace a role of growing importance in Vermont.

“We went to year-round operation mostly to work with school-age visitors,” explains Denenberg, who came to Shelburne in 2011 after serving in administrative and curatorial roles for five years at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.

“Schools are changing due to budgetary stresses. Nationally, in 1960, something like 83 percent of public schools had music and art education combined. Today we’re under half of that.”

Catering to standardized tests and emphasizing science, technology, engineering, and math are the dominant trends. “But you also have to have arts; otherwise we’re not going to get anywhere as a productive country,” he says.

The museum brings students in proximity to objects — French Impressionist and American paintings, furniture, quilts, woodworking tools, and a collection of 1,400 decoys — “one of the largest and best in the world,” says board chair Peter Martin, president of WCAX-TV.” Many of these beautiful carvings are currently on display at the Pizzagalli Center while their usual quarters undergo restoration.

Studies, such as a recent one at the University of Arkansas, confirm that for many students, such experiential learning is invaluable. “Kids who do a workshop, say, in our paintings collection, are far more likely to remember a history lesson five years later than they are if it’s just in a classroom,” says Denenberg. He points to the 107-piece historical firearms display, which traces Vermont’s role in the evolution of primitive muskets to the mass production of weapons for the Civil War.

“It’s about ingenuity and the expansion of the economy,” he says, “and I think that’s directly relevant to where we are today.”

Last spring, Denenberg joined other cultural and educational leaders at the Statehouse to dissuade Vermont’s legislators from eliminating the tax deduction for charitable contributions. Proponents contended that the deductions merely provided a tax shelter for the wealthy, but, says Denenberg, “the nonprofits are using these resources to provide opportunities that the schools aren’t anymore.”

Their arguments were successful. Among those joining Denenberg at the Statehouse, and meeting with the Burlington Free Press editorial board on the same subject, was John Killacky, executive director and CEO of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.

“Tom has become not just a cultural leader, but nonprofit leader in the state,” Killacky says. “The Shelburne was always a great museum, but now they do more partnerships with other organizations. I think he’s absolutely the right person for this incredibly idiosyncratic institution, with its diverse collections and interests.”

Killacky also enjoyed his company.

“Tom takes his work very seriously, but takes himself less seriously. There’s humor and light around him, which I think is great.”

Martin, the museum’s board chair, is similarly impressed. Denenberg’s experience in completing major capital projects proved invaluable when the museum brought him on board. At the Portland Museum of Art he oversaw the restoration of American painter Winslow Homer’s studio, a National Landmark in Prouts Neck, Maine, and the acquisition of the 1832 Charles Quincy Clapp House in Portland; as a curator at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he facilitated the construction of a sizeable exhibition and education wing.

“The Shelburne Museum has about 165,000 square feet of exhibition space,” Martin explains. “That makes it a medium-sized museum facility. But it has 40 roofs! Ninety-nine percent of comparably sized museums have one roof. And some large number of the buildings are themselves [historically valuable] objects; you don’t just slap vinyl siding on them.

“It’s a very complicated institution to run,” Martin concludes. “It requires intellectual rigor, aesthetic experience, organizational skills, and leadership qualities. Tom is a consummate professional who brings a first-class intellect to the job.”

As it happens, Denenberg’s fascination with aesthetics and history grew from a capital project on a far-humbler scale: a “little glass box of a house” (as he describes it) that his parents built in the 1950s in rural upstate Connecticut for a summer retreat from the family’s busy life in New York City. It was patterned after the 1949 “Courtyard House” at the Museum of Modern Art, designed in 1949 by modernist architect Marcel Breuer. (Certainly, family disposition also contributed to Denenberg’s pathway: his father was an architect, and his mother, a painter.)

The Connecticut house, plopped amid old stone foundations in a former apple orchard, “probably sowed the seeds of my curiosity about the way we create environments and aesthetics, and how we learn history lessons with objects.”

Born in 1967, Denenberg earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Bates College in Maine in 1990. But it was a summer internship after his freshman year that set him upon his lifelong course. He calls it “a summer job that never really ended.”

His advisor arranged for him to shadow the chief curator at the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities at its facility in Boston. There, Denenberg immersed himself in esoteric pursuits, including the study of material culture, which examines the relationship between people and their things.

As his interests broadened and clarified, doors opened for him. Still a student, he was asked to give a talk on an American painter at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. In the small audience were two curators from the Smithsonian Institution who, soon thereafter, offered him a position as an exhibition coordinator and research assistant at their American Art Museum. After two years at the Smithsonian he secured a fellowship at Winterthur, the Delaware childhood home of Henry Francis du Pont, which features historic furniture and decorative arts.

Opportunities continued to avail themselves: the Reynolda House; the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut — “My first grownup job,” he says. Along the way, he secured his Ph.D. in American and New England Studies from Boston University. His dissertation — Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America — earned publication from Yale Press, the first of many studies on artists, antiquities, and theories of historical development that he has published solely or in collaboration with other scholars.

When he was recruited by the Shelburne Museum in 2011, fund-raising for the Pizzagalli Center had started, but leading it to fruition was Denenberg’s predominant task. It couldn’t have been accomplished, he emphasizes, without generous contributions from the museum’s directors and a team effort by the museum’s development, curatorial, and educational departments. His praise also includes the 160 or so full- and part-time workers who manage the vast and diverse property, especially in summer.

Denenberg and his staff are feeling their way through the transition from a seasonal to a year-round schedule. Vermont’s demographic realities make this a challenge. In this respect, his wife, Amber Degn, is a valuable partner. She, too, has a museum background — they met as students working at Winterthur — and chairs the volunteer steering committee for The Barnstormers.

“It’s an affinity group,” Denenberg explains — people who are approaching middle age and will eventually become the active, lifelong learners that constitute a critical mass of support for museums everywhere.

Denenberg and Degn have two children, ages 5 and 6, and live nearby in Shelburne. Apart from the museum, he likes to “putter” — in a small woodworking shop; on an old Porsche; with a Fender electric guitar. On a semi-regular basis, he says, Amber’s love of travel gets him away.

It’s clear, though, that the most restless aspect of Thomas Denenberg’s life is the life of the mind. That’s the life he seeks to share, and enrich, for inquisitive Vermonters of all ages. •