The Bybee Collection of American Furniture
The following is a 2003 essay describing the DMA's acquisition of the Faith P. and Charles L. Bybee Collection of American Furniture.
Considering the scope and quality of the Dallas Museum of Art’s collections, it is interesting to note that the Museum did not begin to collect decorative arts in earnest until the early to mid-1980s. A motivating factor that sparked the Museum’s extraordinary rise to prominence in this field was the acquisition of The Faith P. and Charles L. Bybee Collection of 18th- and early 19th-century American furniture in 1985.
The previous year, the Dallas Museum of Art received the stunning gift of The Wendy and Emery Reves Collection. Together, these two collections inspired the Museum to implement a major change in policy toward collecting decorative arts, suddenly catapulting itself into the rank of museums serious about European and American furniture. This was due in no small part to the Bybee Collection.
The complex tale of how the Bybee Collection came to the Museum reveals the dedication of the Museum’s leaders, staff, and supporters. The availability of the collection came to the attention of Museum President Vincent A. Carrozza, Director Harry Parker, and Curator of American Art Rick Stewart in 1985. After the three men saw the collection in Mrs. Bybee’s Houston apartment, the Board of the Dallas Museum of Art quickly (and enthusiastically) recommended that the Museum officially change its policy to expand its collecting interest to include decorative arts. Thus the Museum launched an aggressive fundraising campaign to compete actively with several other public institutions, private collectors, and dealers in securing the Bybee Collection.
Several factors helped tip the balance in Dallas’s favor. Mrs. Bybee passionately wanted her collection to remain in her native Texas, with the understanding that any institution that purchased the core furniture collection would receive a further bequest of additional furniture pieces and other objects. The Dallas Tri Delta Charity Antiques Show offered to underwrite a substantial part of the acquisition, an enormously generous pledge that proved crucial to the Museum’s decision to pursue the collection. All of this enabled the Museum to bring to Dallas an American furniture collection that rivaled that of any museum of private collection of comparable size anywhere in the United States, thereby launching its successful entry into the field of decorative arts.
The Bybee Collection did not form the largest assemblage of American furniture in the country; that was not the Bybee’s intention when they began to collect in the 1940s. The collection is exceptional because of the high quality of the individual pieces and the surprisingly broad geographical and stylistic range of the collection as a whole. Faith and Charles Bybee clearly saw American furniture as something not limited to the traditionally esteemed “high-style” work from America’s major 18th-and 19th-century cabinetmaking centers. The Bybees also recognized the importance and beauty of regional and rural examples of the American furniture-maker’s art. Many of the pieces in the collection eloquently attest to the often underappreciated fact that some of the most beautifully proportioned and carefully crafted pieces of American furniture were made well outside of the established urban centers of the East Coast. The Bybee’s appreciation of what at times may have been disparaged as “provincial” furniture attests to their originality as collectors who were free of conventional assumptions. This allowed them to build a unique collection of furniture types, ranging geographically from New England to Texas to California and chronologically back to the early 18th century. The media include materials as diverse as bent willow, laminated walnut, and cast iron.
Pieces in the “high-style” category include a notable high chest of drawers (1985.B.18.A-E) made in Massachusetts, a desk and bookcase (1985.B.27.A-B) attributed to Nathaniel Gould, and a tall case clock (1985.B.4) made in Boston by Benjamin Bagnall, one of only four such clocks by him known to survive.
Outstanding pieces of a very different sort significantly broaden and distinguish the collection. A wardrobe (1992.B.116) made in Fayette County, Texas, in the 1860s has been described as one of the finest pieces of furniture made in Texas in the 19th century; while the shape of the wardrobe was fairly common in the central and eastern parts of the state at the time, examples decorated with this type of superbly done faux-wood finish are exceedingly rare. The inclusion of pieces such as this make the Bybee Collection unique.
Carl Wuellner, "The Faith P. and Charles L. Bybee Collection of American Furniture,” in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years, ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), Pamphlet number 57.