Guest Commentary: Two Exhibitions and the ‘Arch of Justice’

A fallen statue of Jefferson Davis is on display at Valentines. ,Photos courtesy of Valentine,

New York City – On a hot afternoon I stand in line between two thin ropes in the bright and well air-conditioned courtyard of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I am surrounded by objects of the gilded era. To my left is the bronze and gold “Diana” of the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens who was once crowned Madison Square Garden. To my right is the colorful mosaic of Louis Comfort Tiffany that decorated the jeweler’s house. A richly carved pulpit by Daniel Chester French, salvaged from a Manhattan church, rises behind me. My pose is waiting to be funneled into a tentative show, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.” It’s an annual exhibition of blockbusters from decades gone by, sponsored by the Mets Costume Institute. The opening nights, known as the Met Gala, are often as dazzling as the show itself. Here, at the prestigious fashion event a few weeks ago, Anna Wintour and Tom Ford welcomed stars like Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds, Alicia Keys, Glenn Close and Austin Butler (the current on-screen “Elvis”) to the red carpet.

But we came not just for haute couture, but for provincial reasons. Our hometown’s very own Valentines History Center has given three costumes from its nationally recognized costume collection to huge exhibitions. The gown is on display in the Met’s period room, which the museum calls the “freeze frame” of American fashion. From 1670 to 1915, vignettes were curated by nine American film directors including Sofia Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Chloe Zhao. Regina King, director of “One Night in Miami” and an Academy Award-winning actress, envisioned the placement of a Valentine gown in the Met’s permanent Richmond Room. The wing, housing the period room that began life elsewhere, is the harbinger of intimate galleries. The Shaker Retiring Room of 1818 came from Mount Lebanon, New York. The 1913 Frank Lloyd Wright–designed living room is from the Francis and Mary Little House in Vezzata, Minnesota. The Richmond Room, a parlor of the William Clayton Williams House (built in 1810 and demolished in 1938), stood downtown on North Eighth Street where the Federal Building now stands.

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After passing through the renovated stone front door of the Branch Bank of the United States, a lost Wall Street landmark, we head into the period room. They are in low light to protect the delicate fabrics of clothing. Thirteen of the Met’s 30 period rooms are the venues for “An Anthology of Fashion.” Our eyes adjust to the Richmond Room with its deep mahogany woodwork, well-proportioned windows, and elegant “Monuments of Paris” beautiful wallpaper. The precious Valentine cargo includes rare, turn-of-the-last-century “afternoon” gowns made by Richmond designer and seamstress fanny Chris Payne, who was African American (1867–1942). Director King’s tableau captures Payne in a costume of her own, standing proudly as a client who bears one of her designs. Another man, also wearing a Payne original, watches while a young black seamstress, one of Payne’s employees, toils on the sidelines, trying to break into one of the few areas available to black women. The symbol is – the last century.

A dress by Richmond designer and seamstress Fanny Chris Payne at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My thoughts, running for space in the limited viewing area, went straight to imagining the feelings of Valentine and the Met staff members as they read the elaborate clothing for the performance. I am reminded of Martin Luther King’s declaration in 1968 that “… Moral justice is long in scope, but it bends toward justice.” Fanny Chris Payne was born in rural Cumberland County, Virginia, to illiterate, formerly slave-farming parents, but her talent, energy, drive, and sense of style earned her one of the wealthiest — and most fashionable — Richmond homes. delivered. Eventually, he had a residence on East Leigh Street, owned by a black clientele, famed Richmond entrepreneur and civic leader Maggie L. It was only a few doors from Walker’s house. Later, Payne and her husband settled in New York where they bought a house in Harlem. There she grew her business and designed for Hollywood royalty such as Gloria Swanson. Payne actually had an arc from post-Civil War Cumberland County to Richmond, to the Harlem Renaissance, and now, in the 21st century, to Fifth Avenue and the nation’s greatest art museum.

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These Valentines are prime times for staff, curators and leadership. While visiting the Met I also pondered how Valentine earlier this year sought to borrow a D-pedestal statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from its owner, the Black History Museum and Cultural Center in Virginia. It is currently on display at Valentine’s extensive “This Is Richmond, Virginia” exhibit. Other items on display range from Native American artifacts to a statue of Chief Justice John Marshall, to a down-and-dime store lunch counter where a civil rights meeting was held.

On June 10, 2020, Davis Bronze, who had stood on Monument Avenue since 1907, now lies in the street with bubble gum-pink paint and his mutilated face. A noose of shredded toilet paper wrapped around his neck. As for moral justice, this damaged object now rests horizontally in the museum, which also houses the studio of its sculptor Edward V. Valentine. It is also poignant that Jefferson Davis lived in relative splendor as president of the Confederate States of America at the White House of the Confederacy at 1101 AD Clay St., just two blocks away. Neighborhood.

It is vital that we protect, exhibit and interpret precious buildings and artifacts from the distant and recent past. They lend credibility to the “arc of justice” and our resilience as individuals, as a community and as a nation.

“In America: An Anthology of Fashion” continues September 5 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York, admissions. ,metmuseum.org,

The Jefferson Davis statue is on display at the “This is Richmond, Virginia” exhibit in Valentine through December 2022, 1015 East Clay St. Admissions, but there is no admission fee Wednesday. thevalentine.org,

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