As Dr. Weber recalls it, her interest in the arts came naturally. “My mother collected 19th Century hideous exhibition pieces that were always covered in plastic,” she said over lunch recently. “My father was in the shoe industry so my eye was pretty well trained early.”
At Barnard College she majored in art history. Once she was out of college she got jobs on the fringes of the art world working with Courtney Sales Ross making documentaries: among them: “In Search of Mark Rothko” and “The New York School.”
“Then I started an art history journal,” she said. “It was called Source: and it published forward thinking articles on the history of art.”
In 1983, when Susan was 28 she married the financier George Soros. She finished her master’s degree and moved to London where she worked in the antiques trade and partnered with the dealer Philip Colleck.
Though she was eager to get back to the academic world after giving birth to their two sons, Susan was turned down for the position of director of graduate studies at the Cooper Hewitt Museum.
Determined to stay in the field she took the 12-page proposal Cooper Hewitt had rejected and with more than $10 million from her then husband, launched the Bard Graduate Center for the Decorative Arts. “That was 30 years ago and Bard was born,’’ she recalled.
It has been a stunning success. Since then there have been close to 60 shows and 90 publications of which she has personally written close to one dozen. The New York Times called her show, John Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London, “thoroughly researched and expertly installed” — and the exhibit, Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place, “marvelous.”
“The idea for the current show came from Philip English and his wife Deborah who are on the Bard board and are major collectors of Majolica,” Susan said. “I visited their home in Baltimore and was stunned by the breath and depth of their collection.’’
“I began to read what little had been written on the subject and I realized that it fit in with the mission of what Bard has done,” she said. “Majolica was the major ceramic invention of the 19th Century throughout the world.”
Majolica incorporated brilliant enamel color. Before that color was only affordable to the rich. Certainly there was color in Sevres porcelain for example, but that was only made for royalty and the elite. “Then in the 19th century you got the invention of synthetic dyes,” Dr. Weber explained. “They were not so expensive, and they began to be used in textiles, paint colors and also in publishing. There were illustrated magazines and newspapers and middle class people could also buy majolica objects in gorgeous colors.”
But if the sale of majolica democratized home décor, originally the manufacture exploited poor factory workers. Until the 1870s in England, there was no compulsory education. As a result the majolica factories hired very young girls and boys: sometimes as young as eight years old to work as long as 12 or 14 hours a day. The work was extremely dangerous because the high levels of raw lead in the glazes could result in lead poisoning for those handling it. It was not until the new laws in the 1890s that limited the amount of lead in the formulas, for example, that workers got more protection.
And Majolica was not just popular in Great Britain. It flourished in the United States too: as British workers began eyeing opportunities in the United States. Of course, styles were adopted in many cases to the local culture. For example, a British jug that featured a cricket player was designed in the United States in an almost identical style — but this time with a baseball player, in deference to the popularity of the sport on this side of the Atlantic.
After the New York viewing closes on January 2, the show travels to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
Photographs by Bruce White (Exhibition) & Da Ping Luo (portraits)