STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
Lyman Orton partners with Bennington Museum and Southern Vermont Arts Center with a magnificent exhibition of Vermont art
This summer, the Green Mountain State’s artistic legacy will be beautifully celebrated at two of Southern Vermont’s most renowned cultural institutions. For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection will bring over 200 stellar Vermont artworks from Lyman Orton’s extraordinary private collection to the Bennington Museum (July 1 – November 5) and the Southern Vermont Arts Center (July 22 – November 5). Captivating, timeless works by Vermont-based creative luminaries, such as Rockwell Kent, Mead Schaeffer, Marion Huse, Luigi Lucioni, and many others will be shown in an accessible, informative, and compelling manner. The lovingly-curated exhibition will capture the inimitable cultural and scenic mystique of Vermont like never before, bringing new cultural depth to the impactful and evocative artworks in Orton’s collection.
Lyman Orton’s name is instantly recognizable to many Vermonte s as the second-generation proprietor of the beloved Vermont Country Store. He has also played a critical role in supporting Vermont’s vibrant visual arts scene for years. Over the past several decades, he has gone to extreme lengths to repatriate celebrated paintings by Vermont artists and bring them back to the Green Mountain State. Before Orton began his campaign, many exceptional paintings by Vermont artists tragically ended up in gallery storage rooms across the country. Oftentimes, the paintings were acquired by out-of-state collectors, who had little respect or regard for their cultural significance. Orton grew his collection over time through exhaustive, comprehensive, artistic search-and-rescue missions. He traveled from coast to coast and enlisted the services of multiple illustrators, appraisers, and curators, each of whom played a key role in furthering his efforts.
Throughout the process of building his collection, Orton selflessly offered support to revered cultural institutions throughout the state of Vermont, such as Bennington Museum and Southern Vermont Arts Center (SVAC). He has loaned out several paintings from his collection to SVAC and Bennington Museum in the past, and he has also made direct donations to Bennington Museum to help secure additional Vermont artworks for their permanent collections. By doing so, he ensured the continuation of the artistic legacy of Vermont’s most celebrated artists – and he also paved the way for the eventual mounting of For the Love of Vermont: The Lyman Orton Collection at Bennington Museum and SVAC. “I was motivated to loan out the paintings by the same feeling that made me want to bring them back to Vermont,” shares Orton. “I didn’t have a museum, and I wanted to get more eyes on the pieces and share them with the public. We’re taking things even further with For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection. I’m incredibly excited to see it come together.”
A Lifelong Love Story
Throughout Lyman Orton’s childhood, the seventh-generation Vermonter has always had a heartfelt love for his beautiful home state. Growing up in Weston, he recalls idyllic, pastoral scenes that brought him closer to nature, his family, and his surroundings in a way that profoundly shaped his worldview. As Orton’s life progressed, he eventually took the reins of the Vermont Country Store (VCS) from his father, Vrest Orton. He brought new levels of prosperity to VCS by making use of his inborn business savvy and logistical acuity—and he applied many of the same organizational and curatorial skills towards building a phenomenal art collection.
Although the story behind For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection is closely intertwined with Orton’s autobiographical reflections, the greater scope of Vermont’s overarching artistic trajectory is also woven into the exhibition. In 1936, the famed New York Times art critic, Edward Alden Jewell, came to Vermont to attend a little- known art show at the Burr & Burton Academy Gymnasium. Upon arriving in Manchester, he was amazed by the talent that he found in the foothills of Southern Vermont. It was the tenth annual show held by the Southern Vermont Artists, the emergent band of talented Vermont creatives who would eventually play a direct role in establishing the Southern Vermont Arts Center nonprofit in 1952.
Jewell was taken aback by the technique and brilliance of the artist pool in Vermont. He also noted that the Vermont landscape lent itself nicely to artistic interpretation, largely due to the fact that it was “superlatively rich in natural beauty.” Indeed, Vermont’s phenomenal scenery inspired legions of artists throughout the early and mid-20th century to move out of the city, flock to the Green Mountains, and savor a taste of much-needed creative rejuvenation. Mead Schaeffer, Luigi Lucioni, Rockwell Kent, Bernadine Custer, Kyra Markham, Marion Huse, Cecil Bell, and Arthur Jones, all made their mark on Vermont’s arts scene, along with many other renowned painters who are featured in For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection.
A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
The story of Vermont’s artistic community is also chronicled beautifully in an accompanying book by Orton and his journalistic collaborator, Anita Rafael, which bears the same title as the exhibition. Orton and Rafael assembled the book, which features richly-detailed histories of the Vermont arts scene, Lyman’s early years in Weston, and his process of repatriating the artworks. Before writing the book, Rafael embarked on an exhaustive online research campaign and conducted an extensive series of phone interviews with gallery owners and art historians.
Rafael shares that her interview process with Orton was very organic and conversational. “I clicked the phone recorder on, and we just talked for a few minutes at a time while he told stories. Eventually, he elaborated on his stories some more, and I corroborated them with database research. We pulled it all together in less than a year.” Orton adds: “Anita is a fantastic journalist and writer. It was great to work with her. She didn’t just sit there passively while we were talking and stick to the script. She kept plying me with additional questions, which kept the conversation going naturally. It was great fun, and I love the way that it all came together.”
Orton and Rafael’s book will be sold at both Bennington Museum and SVAC for the duration of the exhibition. In addition, Orton and Rafael will host an informative Q&A at SVAC with SVAC’s Artistic Director, Anne Corso on July 22. “We will have a public opening reception on July 22 on the opening day of the exhibition,” says Corso. “The public is invited, and we want everyone to come out. We will have a Q&A with Lyman, Anita, and myself about the stories in the book. It will be a great way to kick off the exhibition!”
According to SVAC’s Curator, Alison Crites, the paintings in both the SVAC and Bennington Museum exhibitions are broken down into four distinct categories: “Picture Country,” “Making a Living,” “Coming Together,” and “Village Beautiful.” Crites explains, “’Picture Country’ showcases the incredible beauty of Vermont’s landscapes, and ‘Making a Living’ honors and represents many of the homegrown industries in Vermont. Scenes of socialization spaces in Vermont villages and remote communities are celebrated in ‘Coming Together,’ and the ‘Village Beautiful’ section is focused around paintings that feature the distinct architecture of some of Vermont’s most iconic structures.” In order to bring all of the themes together cohesively, Crites worked directly with Donnel Barnum on the layout of the exhibit. “Working with Lyman, SVAC, and Bennington Museum on this project has been an amazing experience,” shares Barnum. “We all have true respect and reverence for Vermont’s artists, and we all feel a strong sense of emotional connection to the collection.”
Bennington Museum’s Curator, Jamie Franklin, played a critical part in the development of the exhibition. According to Franklin, he and Orton first started working together in 2010. Their collaborative partnership began when Orton was searching for a Rockwell Kent painting of a church in Sunderland, which was featured in a book that his father, Vrest Orton, wrote and published. Franklin explains: “Lyman knew that his father had a relationship with Rockwell Kent, but he wasn’t familiar with the Kent painting that featured the church, Mother and Chicks.” At the time, Franklin was putting together an exhibition of Rockwell Kent’s work. After their initial conversation, Orton was able to find and acquire Mother and Chicks from an art dealer in California. Orton lent the painting out to Franklin for the exhibit, which took place in 2012, along with several others, and their professional relationship continued to grow from there.
After Orton’s friend and artistic advisor, Barbara Melhado, passed away in 2016, Franklin began working with Orton in a similar capacity. “He will occasionally send me a picture of a Vermont painting that is coming up at auction and get my opinion on it,” says Franklin. Similarly, when Franklin sees paintings in line with Orton’s aesthetic values, he will let Orton know that he believes it would complement the collection nicely. Franklin elaborates: “For example, one of his more recent acquisitions is a watercolor painting by Milton Avery. I let him know that it was coming up at auction, and he ended up acquiring it. It will be in the For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection exhibition here at Bennington Museum.”
Franklin adds that Orton’s magnificent collection of Vermont artworks is unparalleled by any museum in Vermont or parts beyond. “There’s never been an individual or institution that’s gone out to collect the work of Vermont artists in the focused way that he has. The Bennington Museum has been collecting the work of artists living and working in this area for almost a century, but the Orton collection is larger than ours by a considerable margin. There will be 50 paintings here at the Bennington Museum exhibition and 200 at the SVAC exhibition. We had to make some difficult choices in terms of the paintings that we selected, but we worked together to make sure that the exhibitions complemented one another.”
According to Franklin, he first began speaking with Orton about an official collaborative exhibition in 2020. “I thought it was a great idea from the beginning,” says Franklin. “Lyman put together a collection that truly represents the history and culture of Vermont. It wasn’t a hard decision to say yes. We formed a main group of constituents with Lyman, Donnel Barnum, SVAC, and Shawn Harrington from the Manchester Historical Society.” The group met fairly regularly for several years over Zoom meetings, where they talked about what paintings would work well with the themes that they wanted to address in the exhibitions. As a curator, Franklin believes that great collections are borne out of personal interests and passions. “This collection very much reflects Lyman’s personal values, his family history, and his relationship to Vermont,” notes Franklin. “He has a very personal relationship with these paintings, and there are consistent images that showed up in the collection repeatedly in different forms. We wanted to provide a framework of the main subjects in his collection in a way that made it clear that Lyman is not a typical art collector. He uses the art as a way to tell stories about Vermont, Vermont people, and Vermont history.”
Each notable highlight from the For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection exhibition at Bennington Museum tells part of Vermont’s greater historic narrative, including Kyra Markham’s Two White Oxen in Winter, Changing Times. The painting depicts two oxen fading into transparent nothingness as a metaphor for the shifting nature of Vermont’s agricultural economy in the 20th Century. Conversely, Cecil Bell’s Good Boys shows a more nostalgic scene of draft horses pulling a weighted sled at a country fair, which hearkens back to an earlier era. The impressionistic interplay of color and texture in Milton Avery’s Along West River evokes a feeling of timeless tranquility. Luigi Lucioni’s Pillars of Vermont is colorful and vivid, with a red barn and silo standing in the foreground of a majestic tableau of mountains and waterways.
At the entrance of the For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection exhibition at Bennington Museum, a classic Vermont country store scene will be set against the backdrop of a large black-and white print of the Vermont Country Store. “People will be able to sit down, relax, and play chess like they did in the old days of the Vermont Country Store,” says Franklin. “It will serve as a way to welcome people in a very approachable way that is in line with the values and origins of Lyman’s collection.” Each of the informational labels for the artworks will be drafted in an accessible, anecdotal fashion by Anita Rafael, which mirrors the easygoing manner in which Lyman talks about the collection. “The labels tell approachable stories, which creates a laid-back and welcoming interface for the visitors.”
Franklin believes that the exhibition closely aligns with Bennington Museum’s overarching goals of preserving and elevating the history and culture of Bennington, Southern Vermont, and the entire region. “The Bennington Museum is a very regionally-specific institution. From our origins, we were showing many of the same Vermont artists that we are showing in For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection. I love how the exhibit connects with the original missions of Bennington Museum and SVAC. There aren’t many museums that focus on Vermont’s history and art. As the Curator of Bennington Museum, I’ve created many exhibitions that tell bits and pieces of the story, but it’s wonderful to be able to present a collection with a scope this broad and impactful and share it with the public. I think it’s an unparalleled collection that captures Vermont’s sense of self better than anything.”
Orton echoes Franklin’s sentiment, and adds that although it has taken a considerable amount of effort to arrange the exhibition, the hard work has all been worth it. “This is the first real show from my collection, and I’m looking forward to seeing where things go from here. I’m very serious about having this collection endure through time, because the art represents everything I love so much about Vermont.”