Unpacking the Past: Cathy McLaurin and Lawrence’s Tiny Museum
Artist Cathy McLaurin climbs up four flights of stairs in one of Lawrence’s old mill buildings. She twists and turns down its long corridors until she finds the right door. Inside, golden light spills through a tall bank of windows, and in the middle of the room sits an art project she has been working on for months.
It’s a small museum — approximately 10 feet long, 26 inches tall and 40 inches deep. It will be used to display 17 miniature reproductions of paintings by artists such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Jean-Léon Gérôme. The originals are worth an estimated $20 million, but they’ve never been exhibited in the city of Lawrence, where most people don’t know they exist. McLaurin hopes to change that once the mini-museum opens.
An accomplished contemporary artist now living in Danville, New Hampshire, McLaurin is the interim executive director of the Essex Art Center and the director of its Beland Gallery. Her past art projects have included performance or multimedia elements, such as “Unpacking Vocabulary,” a long and somewhat grueling spelling bee in which art critics, academics and curators grilled her for hours about her knowledge of art jargon. In 2016, she exhibited “The Reverend, His Lover, Their Monet, and The Museum” in the Linda Hummel-Shea ArtSpace Gallery at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill. That exhibit included filmed interviews exploring the Rev. William Wolcott’s controversial will of 1911, in which he bequeathed a collection of paintings, mostly by Europeans, to the White Fund, a charitable trust.
The will stipulated that Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) would retain possession of these paintings until the city of Lawrence could provide a secure, fireproof museum. “An art museum in Lawrence was not only inevitable, but imminent,” McLaurin says in explaining Wolcott’s thinking. He couldn’t imagine the great mills closing and the city he loved falling into financial ruin.
The paintings are currently stored in the basement of the MFA. Only the one Monet and two Pissarros are displayed. They’re in the impressionism galleries when they’re not on loan to other museums. A few years ago, White Fund trustees — local individuals who oversee the collection — considered selling a few of the paintings and using the money to create a local arts program. When MFA leaders heard of this, they filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts Supreme Court. In 2000, A judge ruled that sale of these paintings would violate Wolcott’s will.
After McLaurin’s exhibit closed in Haverhill, she couldn’t stop thinking about the paintings and lingering questions over Wolcott’s gift, particularly in regard to morals, class, philanthropy and legacy.
“I was thinking a lot about why couldn’t the paintings be in Lawrence?” she says. “Could they come to Lawrence if they were exhibited in a bank vault? That’s secure. But what would that mean?”
That led to another idea. She could build her own museum — a tiny one that could travel to the people.
“It is portable,” she says. “It breaks down into parts that go into a crate with wheels that can go anywhere. It takes 15 minutes to set up, whether it’s on the street or inside a church. I can put it together myself without assistance and place it in the back of a pickup truck.”
McLaurin received two grants that have helped her. One was the $25,000 New Hampshire Charitable Foundation’s Piscataqua Region Artist Advancement Grant, one of the largest unrestricted artist grants in the country. It supports an artist who’s working on a civic engagement project. The other grant, from the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust, funded the actual building of the mini-museum.
“I became interested in the architecture of a museum,” says McLaurin, who learned from a Cambridge architect that churches and museums share one characteristic: both are designed to create “awe.” “While people don’t go to church so much these days, they do go to museums to be awed,” McLaurin says. Thus, museums are built with columns, arches and large galleries.
Of course, a skeptic might say that McLaurin’s isn’t a real museum. These aren’t real master works. What does this project really do for the people of Lawrence?
Ultimately, this mini-museum is a work of art, purposefully designed to provoke questions and make viewers think. Outsourcing is one idea McLaurin would like viewers to ponder. “Lawrence is a city where things are made,” she says. “Things are still being made in Lawrence, but people may not know about them.”
The mini-museum itself was made in Lawrence by carpenter/artist Kai Vlahos, a Haverhill resident. The reproductions of the paintings were made in Dafen, a Chinese village famous for its factory-like studios and their fine art reproductions. The hand-carved frames were made in Bulgaria with gold leaf from Italy. A marionette puppet in the likeness of Wolcott was made in Prague.
Viewers might consider how we all depend on the work of others, particularly immigrants or low-paid overseas labor. What value do we place on that? What value do we place on art, which is also created by hardworking, low-paid workers?
“I don’t know what this work is until there is a dialogue around it,” says McLaurin, who plans to use her mini-museum to encourage public conversations. “I want to know, do people care about this work? What is the value of these paintings to the people of Lawrence today? Who is this work ultimately for? You can talk about it in an abstract way, but really the decisions are made by a few people in privileged positions who make decisions about whose works gets to be shown and where.”
She continues: “Lawrence is Immigrant City — a complex place where good things happen every day. There’s another sort of parallel narrative about why Lawrence can’t have its paintings. Some people will tell you it will never happen. I don’t know, but I realize that question becomes more and more significant, particularly in the country we’re living in today.”
McLaurin doesn’t have dates and locations yet for her mini-museum, but soon it will show up at festivals and in libraries, banks and restaurants. When it does, anyone who’s curious will be able to step up and take a look. She will be eager to see their reactions. Will it be awe, or will it be ambivalence to just another set of paintings created more than a century ago?