Baltimore, 1936 From A Century of African-American Quilts; Appliquéd Quilt Top; Maker unknown; Cottons, rayons; Museum Purchase, 2015.609.8
Photo: Courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg
Photo: Courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg

Art for the practical minded: Southern decorative art museums

Art doesn't have to be something purely representative with only aesthetic value and no practical use. It is quite appropriate to speak of decorative arts that are not only beautiful but also perform practical functions beautifully.

"There's a famous quote from Joseph Downs, curator of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the 1930s and 1940s, who remarked that there was little of artistic merit made south of Baltimore," noted Daniel Ackerman, curator for the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Old Salem in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "All of us in this field over the past 50-plus years have proven that statement wrong and have shown that some of the great treasures of American decorative arts were made by southern hands."

It's worth noting that Downs was a Massachusetts native.

In explaining just how it was that poor ol' Joseph Downs got it so wrong, Ackerman explained: "Southerners are just passionate about place and they're passionate about the objects that were made and used in the places they lived; the objects that were made and used by their ancestors."

Here are five great places to experience the high place of southern decorative art.

Museum  of  Early Southern Decorative Arts

One of the museums at Old Salem Museums & Gardens, MESDA houses an exceptional collection of decorative arts made and used in the South from the 1500s to the Civil War including everything from architecture, furniture and silver to ceramics, paper and textiles. The Caroline and Mike McNamara Southern Masterworks Gallery and the William C. and Susan S. Mariner Southern Ceramics Gallery – both self-guided galleries – opened last year, MESDA's 50th anniversary year.

Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, 924 South Main St., Winston-Salem. 336-721-7360, www.mesda.org

The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum

One of the art museums of Colonial Williamsburg, the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum is a striking collection of American and British furniture, metals, ceramics, glass, prints, firearms and textiles from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in 15 galleries at the historic Colonial Willamsburg site. Current exhibits include A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early South; We are One: Mapping America's Road from Revolution to Independence; Silver from Mine to Masterpiece; The World Made Small; Rebuilding Charlton's Coffeehouse; Changing Keys: Keyboard Instruments for America, 1700-1830. The museum's Hennage Auditorium offers lectures and musical performances and an onsite cafe.

The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, 326 West Francis St., Williamsburg. 888-965-7254, www.history.org/history/museums/dewitt_gallery.cfm

The Decorative Arts Collection at the Mint Museum

Charlotte, North Carolina's Mint Museum Randolph has an impressive collection of decorative arts, including American art pottery, some from the South, and the largest public collection of North Carolina ceramics in the nation. On May 7, the Mint Museum will be opening a new exhibition, "Pumped: The Art & Craft of Shoemaking." The Mint Museum Randolph is housed in an original branch of a U.S. mint just a few miles from Uptown Charlotte and has a theater featuring occasional performances and lectures.

The Mint Museum Randolph, 2730 Randolph Rd., Charlotte. 704-337-2000, www.mintmuseum.org/art/collections/decorative-arts

Houston Museum  of  Decorative Arts

For something smaller, easier and quirkier, this little museum in Chattanooga's downtown Bluff View art district is just the thing. Featuring quite a collection of Victorian art glass such as water pitchers, "courting" lamps and cruets, not everything here is southern or even of U.S. origin, but much of it is. Be forewarned though; the museum is open very limited hours.

Houston Museum of Decorative Arts, 201 High St., Chattanooga. 423-267-7176, www.thehoustonmuseum.org

National Ornamental Metal Museum

For something truly unique, this museum dedicated to metal artistry tags itself "the only institution in the United States devoted exclusively to the advancement of the art and craft of fine metalwork." That includes things like hand-forged wrought iron farm tools, jewelry, hand-forged knives and more. There is a sculpture garden and a smithy and foundry at the site that sits beside the Mississippi River.

National Ornamental Metal Museum, 374 Metal Museum Dr., Memphis. 877-881-2326, www.metalmuseum.org

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