The Clark and Frances Stillman Collection of Congo Sculpture
Published in 2003 on the occasion of the Dallas Museum of Art's centennial, this short essay by previous Dallas Museum of Art curator John Lunsford reflects back to the 1969 acquisition of the Stillman Collection of Congo Sculpture.
The arrival of the Clark and Frances Stillman Collection of Congo Sculpture to the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts in 1969 was in many ways a watershed event. By far the largest donation yet made to the Museum by Margaret and Eugene McDermott, the gift set for them a new level of committed interest which would grow by geometric progressions over the ensuing years. As an already formed collection assembled by knowledgeable connoisseurs, it was the first of many similar entities which have immeasurably enriched the Museum, several of them also McDermott gifts in whole or in part.
The Stillman Collection also represented the first sizable group of non-Western artworks to enter the Dallas Museum of Art's collections (the original group consisted of 224 pieces), thus opening in grand fashion what is now a major and internationally recognized component of the Museum's holdings. It is valuable to note that the McDermotts wanted this great collection of traditional African sculpture to find its home in Dallas because it could represent the extraordinary cultural heritage of Dallas's African American citizens.
The charming 1969 essay "Forming the Collection," which Frances and Clark Stillman wrote to accompany the first presentation of the Stillman collection at the DMFA building in Fair Park, remains a key statement of the collectors' own "long love affair with Congo sculpture." They set the scene:
The time was the early nineteen-thirties, and we were very young and impressionable. The place was Brussels, full of small shops and collections of Congo objects, where even at the Sunday flea market there were one or two stands selling genuine Congo objects. Our deus ex machina was the young Professor of Anthropology of the University of Ghent, Frans Olbrechts, who had just returned to Belgium from a period of graduate study under professor Franz Boas of Columbia University...At that time, Frans was on the hunt for Congo sculptures for Belgian museums, and we accompanied him on many a foray, into the side streets and flea market in search of minor treasures and to more important collectors and dealers for major treasures.
With Olbrechts' guidance, the Stillmans gradually developed profound and refined connoisseurs' eyes as well as wide knowledge of "the functions of the various pieces, their origins, and their beauties. [Olbrecht] was working out, in his own mind, the classifications by style and style group which he was to develop in his pioneering book, Plastiek van Kongo, and we were participants in the process."
One of the Stillmans' most important sources, Mlle Jeanne Walschot, had inherited a vast collection of pieces from an uncle and other relatives who had been well-placed colonial bureaucrats in the Belgian Congo. These pieces were originally acquired in the very early 20th century, at which time they were in many cases already old. Mlle Walshot was the sole source of the group of nine masks separately purchased in 1971 for the DMFA by Clark Stillman at Margaret McDermott's request.
The other primary source was Dehondt, a collector-dealer with colonialist family collections. Another source, Blondiau, was a collector whose holdings provided objects for one of the earliest exhibitions of African art in the United States, the Blondiau-Theatre Arts Exhibit, held in New York in 1927. The Museum's Chokwe chair (1969.S.10) was in this show, which preceded by nearly a decade the epoch-making Museum of Modern Art exhibit of 1935.
The Stillmans lived in a light-drenched, book- and art-crowded two story studio apartment on the south side of Gramercy Park. There, all but the largest pieces of their collection were kept in tightly marshaled rows in glass-fronted Globe-Wernicke bookcases. A few pieces were rotated to the mantle, where they had more breathing space and were more visible. The Stillmans would also open the cases and take treasured pieces into their hands to share with fortunate visitors. When the collection came to Dallas, the Stillmans kept about 15 pieces, so that "all of their children would not be taken from them at once." These pieces entered the Museum's collections in 1978, shortly after the death of Frances Stillman. Before his death in 1995, Clark Stillman gave the Dallas Museum of Art's Mayer Library their books on Congo sculpture, society, and culture, many of which would be virtually unattainable today.
John Lunsford, "The Clark and Frances Stillman Collection of Congo Sculpture," in Dallas Museum of Art 100 Years, eds. Dorothy Kosinski, et al. (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), 28.