Montgomery County

Outlook 2021: Delmar native, art history buff leaves mark by preserving past at Canajoharie’s Arkell Museum

Arkell Museum and Canajoharie Library Executive Director and Chief Curator Suzan Friedlander outside at Arkell Museum in Canajoharie
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Arkell Museum and Canajoharie Library Executive Director and Chief Curator Suzan Friedlander outside at Arkell Museum in Canajoharie

Published Feb. 25, 2021 in Outlook

“Forty five minutes due west of the Capital District and just two seconds off the Thruway, that’s where you’ll find us,” said Suzan Friedlander, executive director and chief curator for the Arkell Museum at Canajoharie and the Canajoharie Library.

While the pandemic has knocked businesses off their feet coast to coast, creating countless struggles and necessitating new considerations, one upstate organization has managed to keep its foothold since reopening — once it was safe to do so — this past summer: the Arkell Museum.

“We were very lucky when we reopened the first week of July that we’ve remained open since then, practicing what we now call zone defense paired with occupancy limits,” Friedlander said.

She credits the museum’s recent success to its beautiful rural location, helping keep large crowds at bay, allowing those who are eager to “get back out again” and visit somewhere they feel safe alongside loved ones. Although overall annual attendance is down, Friedlander said that September 2020 was up year-over-year from September 2019, due in part to an increase in visitors from downstate.

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But it would be hard not to also credit her leadership, passion and enthusiasm.

The rest is (art) history

Friedlander, who was named acting museum director and chief curator in 2017, and was later appointed executive director of the museum and library, found her love for art history by chance, then built a career around it.

The Delmar native attended Colgate University and was “all science, all the time” as she puts it, until an apartment mate suggested she drop a lackluster mythology class for an art history course her junior year. Friedlander was hooked nearly instantly, soon taking more English and literature classes, and even a class on the American novel. When she graduated, she accepted a research gig at Albany Med, but took night classes at The College of Saint Rose just so she could continue her art history education.

That’s when she “went full-hog,” pursuing a master’s degree in art history at Binghamton University, having earned a full scholarship, fellowship and assistantship, before eventually heading to Cooperstown to work at what is now known as the Fenimore Art Museum.

What was intended to be an 18-month stay turned into five years as project begot project. Not only had she found her passion, she had found her field: consulting in the art history and museum worlds, on everything from baseball to agriculture to American art.

“My own interests are fairly broad, as I’ve had the opportunity to explore different topic areas as a consultant,” Friedlander said, before listing themes such as New York agriculture from pre-statehood to current day, including the hops and apple industries, as well as the impact of the Erie Canal.

She worked with the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Glimmerglass Opera (now known as the Glimmerglass Festival), Springfield Museums, the Farmers’ Museum and the Witter Agricultural Museum, then spent a few years in New England working with Old Sturbridge Village and the Simsbury Historical Society, before ultimately returning upstate to lend support on some projects at the Arkell in 2011 — and never leaving.

As she tells it, she was drawn to the museum and became completely immersed.

“Much of our collection is 19th-century American leading into early 20th-century, which have also become a stronger focus for me since I’ve been here,” Friedlander said.

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The museum has an enormous Beech Nut collection, given that the first president of the company, Bartlett Arkell, founded the initial library in 1925 for the Canajoharie community, hanging 12 paintings from his own collection before opening an attached art gallery two years later.

Friedlander said they’re consistently chipping away at the trove, sorting and cataloging a major period of Canajoharie history.

“One of my true passions is collections research, as I love working with our archives,” she said. “I love finding new things and making the different parts of the collection relate to each other, making those connections for others.”

As far as the artwork itself, she said, she appreciates each painting, mural, sketch and photograph for its elements and its story, not just the totality. “I’ll look at the gowns, the social interaction between figures, the architectural detail of the structures. For me, they’re just as important as the fine art [aspect].”

Lots to see

As for the visitors, interacting with them “from the nose up” also brings her joy.

“Visitors are looking for an easy, comfortable drive to somewhere they can enjoy and feel safe,” Friedlander said.

They spend anywhere from two to four hours, sometimes the better part of a day, she said, touring the property and its contents, and perhaps enjoying a picnic lunch they’ve packed on the grounds or heading into town for a bite before returning to finish the sights. Some even use the museum as a meetup destination — a chance to get out and spend a bit of time (safely) with a friend or loved one.

When asked about her “must-sees,” Friedlander frames things two ways: If you’re visiting for the first time and not sure you’ll ever have the opportunity to come back, don’t miss the permanent collection including seven oil paintings by famed 19th-century American painter Winslow Homer in the original gallery, she said. But if you’re hoping this is just the first visit, and not the last, head to the changing galleries first, where works are rotated in from the permanent collection, or shown while on loan.

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“We are known for our Homer collection and will have all seven on display in our original art gallery on a center line when we reopen on March 3,” she said.

The museum has been intentionally closed for the season since January, allowing for a refresh and reimagination of the exhibits which were launched last year. Definitely check out the reading room, she said, as the multiyear window restoration project was completed in 2020 and is “gorgeous.”

Currently, the changing galleries include “Color, Light & Atmosphere,” featuring landscapes and portraits from the museum’s permanent collection coupled with new research and labels, by the likes of Grandma Moses, James Whistler and George Inness, as well as “Judge Magazine: Politics, Presidents & Political Cartoons,” which explores the history and impact of the magazine acquired by Bartlett’s brother, William J. Arkell in the 19th century.

Friedlander said these days she intentionally looks for the bright moments in the ordinary, like greeting a guest as she walks through the building. “Suddenly I’ll hear, ‘I haven’t been in a library or a museum in a year!’ and that feels good to be a part of that.”

But it’s the discovery piece that forever keeps things interesting. The museum was recently given what she called a “transformative collection” of Winslow Homer woodcut prints collected by Albany resident Shirley W. Brand, now deceased, and given to the Arkell by Brand’s children, Marcia (Brand) Clash and Bob Brand, as well as their respective spouses. “We are in the process of sorting everything and getting bespoke storage pieces for the collection, but we are just so thrilled that the family thought of us,” she said.

Friedlander is equally thrilled that people are venturing back out and enjoying art again. “It’s wonderful for us to feel a part of that and to support the museum-loving community in our area and beyond.”

The museum was recently awarded the 2021 Barbara V. Spraker Tourism Award by the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Suzan Friedlander at a glance

Friedlander is from the Delmar area and a graduate of Bethlehem Central High School.

She was “all about science” until an art history course her junior year unveiled her life’s passion.

She earned her undergraduate degree from Colgate University and her master’s from Binghamton University.

For her master’s thesis, Friedlander explored the post office murals of Broome County, something that has remained an interest and passion of hers in the years since.

Her advice: “Find joy and interest in the little things, as well as the big things.”

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Categories: Art, Business, Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, Life & Arts, News, Outlook 2021

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