“Sometimes you have to reach out a little,” said Melanie Mathewes, executive director of the National Sporting Library & Museum, the speaker at Georgetown Media Group’s Nov. 9 Cultural Leadership Breakfast at the George Town Club, sponsored by Bonhams.
Though the Middleburg, Virginia, institution — founded in 1954 as a research library for the Chronicle of the Horse — boasts “90-percent participation” from the residents of the Loudoun County town, known as the nation’s horse and hunt capital, the total population is 700. Since she arrived in 2013, Mathewes has expanded the audience through public programs such as Wednesday gallery talks, Sunday sketching and “Open Late,” a Friday-night concert series, all with free museum admission.
A milestone in this effort is the exhibition “The Horse in Ancient Greek Art,” which opened Sept. 9 and runs through Jan. 14. The show features painted vases, small sculptures and silver coins from private and museum collections, including the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, which will host the show from Feb. 14 to July 8.
“We sort of need greater bandwidth to reach bigger audiences,” said Mathewes. At the VMFA, “a whole new audience will see our name.”
As Mathewes told it, the exhibition, with an illustrated companion book of scholarly essays distributed by Yale University Press, was sparked by a conversation at the annual Polo Classic benefit. Asked what, if not horseracing or foxhunting, was her passion, she replied “I really love ancient Greek pottery.”
It so happened that her questioner was a collector of Greek vases, most of which depict horses. “Is this the origins of sporting art?” Mathewes wondered. What’s more, the library owned an early copy of Xenophon’s “On Horsemanship,” written about 350 B.C.
A Wall Street Journal reviewer called the show — curated by Nicole Stribling of the National Sporting Library & Museum and Peter Schertz of the VMFA — “splendid.” More than 500 children have come to the museum for programs connected with “The Horse in Ancient Greek Art,” noted Mathewes, who said she is now contemplating a similar show focusing on Asian art.
But the next high-profile exhibition, opening in April of 2018, will feature British sporting art donated to the VMFA by the late art collector, philanthropist and racehorse breeder Paul Mellon. “Paul Mellon was our neighbor,” commented Mathewes. She would like the National Sporting Library & Museum to do more scholarly publishing about where sporting art — the best-known practitioners of which were British painters George Stubbs (1724–1806) and Benjamin Marshall (1768–1835) — fits into the various branches of art history.
Making these kinds of connections has been a hallmark of Mathewes’s career. In her talk, she gave such examples as attracting families with children to the Norfolk Botanical Garden with a “Treemendous Treehouses” exhibition in 2004 and acquiring environmentally minded supporters of the Hermitage Museum & Gardens (also in Norfolk), where she was executive director, thanks to a wetlands restoration project in 2006.