STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY LYMAN ORTON
Lyman Orton shares the story and inspiration behind his extraordinarily comprehensive Vermont art exhibition, For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection
Lyman Orton is a seventh-generation Vermonter, a second-generation proprietor of the beloved Vermont Country Store (VCS), and a longstanding pillar of Vermont’s cultural community. Over the past several decades, Orton has channeled his love for his home state into building an exceptional collection of paintings and mixed-media artworks by a vast range of Vermont artists. With the help of trusted and knowledgeable collaborators such as the late art appraiser, Barbara Melhado, the talented VCS illustrator, Donnel Barnum, and Bennington Museum’s Curator, Jamie Franklin, Orton repatriated hundreds of paintings that had been purchased by collectors from outside of Vermont. By applying the same tenacity and logistical savvy that enabled him to bring Vermont Country Store to new levels of commercial success, he rescued the paintings from the storage rooms of galleries across the country and brought them back to their rightful place in the Green Mountain State.
Orton’s hard work has paid off in the form of a spectacular, unparalleled exhibition of Vermont art, entitled For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection. Over 200 of the most magnificent works from Orton’s private collection will be shown at Bennington Museum (July 1 – November 5) and Southern Vermont Arts Center (July 22 – November 5) through an unprecedented joint exhibition. The exhibition is intentionally curated in a manner that reframes the cultural context of the timeless artworks, offering a chance for both casual art lovers and experienced aficionados to revel in the creative brilliance of Vermont’s most gifted artists. In the weeks leading up to opening day, Orton sat down with VERMONT Magazine to share the story and inspiration behind For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection, his reflections on Vermont’s art, and his boundless love for the Green Mountain State’s history and culture.
Q: Thank you so much for joining us, Lyman! We’re incredibly excited for the upcoming exhibition, For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection at Southern Vermont Arts Center and Bennington Museum. You have brought together an extraordinary collection of Vermont’s finest artworks over the years, with works by influential Vermont and Vermont-based artists such as Rockwell Kent, Luigi Lucioni, Mead Schaeffer, and many others. How did you first begin collecting paintings by Vermont artists and building your collection?
A: After I got married in my mid-twenties, my wife and I began to furnish our house with antiques, and we started going to auctions, as well. My late, dear friend, Barbara Melhado, would frequently go to the auctions with me, and she started teaching me about Vermont’s artists in greater detail. After years of seeing paintings by Vermont artists getting bought up and sent across the country, we started thinking, “why don’t we try to keep these paintings in Vermont?” Most of the paintings were getting sent off to buyers who weren’t from around here, and we wanted to change that. Barbara was an appraiser, and she knew who to call to look for the art. She would call galleries and auction houses across the state and let them know that I was interested in collecting Vermont art before it was purchased by out-of-state buyers. She also served as a business liaison that would give a firm price that I was willing to pay. When the internet came into play, it made it easier to start finding, identifying, and repatriating the Vermont art that had already been sold and shipped out, so I started doing that too. After Barbara Melhado passed away in 2016, I began working more closely with Jamie Franklin, the Curator of the Bennington Museum, to continue to grow the collection. We already had an established relationship, and it was great to work with him, Anne Corso and Alison Crites from SVAC to bring together the For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection exhibition.
Q: What was the most fulfilling part about scouting out the paintings and repatriating them? Was it the thrill of the hunt, or was it seeing it gradually come together?
A: It was both! My curator, Donnel Barnum, is also a talented illustrator who has worked at VCS in our art department since 1986 and designed many of our covers. I once bought a painting at an auction in New Hampshire and she drove there to pick it up. When she picked up the painting and drove back into Vermont across the Connecticut River, she told me that the feeling of bringing the painting back into Vermont was absolutely amazing. I feel the same way every time I get to bring back Vermont artworks, and I had a similarly-thrilling experience when I shipped a Cecil Bell painting back from a gallery in Carmel, California. I also found a painting that was featured in a book that my father, Vrest Orton, published in 1937, And So Goes Vermont: A Picture Book of Vermont as It Is. There was a photograph in the book of the Sunderland Church where Rockwell Kent painted Mother and Chicks. It threw me for a loop when I saw the photograph in my father’s book after building my art collection, because I had some Rockwell Kent paintings already. I put an ad in the paper looking for someone who had information about the painting, and I got a response from Jamie Franklin from Bennington Museum. He looked it up and gave me some information, and I was eventually able to discover it in San Francisco. It took over a year of negotiation to buy it, but it was wonderful to finally bring it back to Vermont.
Q: Long before the For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection exhibition, you had generously loaned works out from your personal collection to many Vermont museums, including Bennington Museum, Southern Vermont Arts Center, Dorset Historical Society, and Shelburne Museum, among others. You have also developed a close, working relationship with Jamie Franklin at Bennington Museum. What motivated you to share your art so freely and form these collaborative partnerships with curators and artistic directors in Vermont?
A: I was motivated by the same feeling that made me want to bring the paintings back to Vermont. I started loaning them out because I didn’t have a museum. I have a good-sized office building in Manchester with a lot of wall space, which I filled up with art with the help of Donnel Barnum. Still, we wanted to get more eyes on the pieces. I’m always happy to loan paintings out, and I’ve also helped Jamie Franklin bring paintings back to Vermont by making donations to the Bennington Museum. The donations helped them to cover part of the price of purchasing the paintings to add to their collection. One of the best things at the Bennington Museum is a fence post with a head at the top that was carved by a farmer who wasn’t even a professional sculptor by trade. Jamie came across it in his travels, learned the story of how it was made, and he desperately wanted to add it to Bennington Museum’s collection. I made a donation to help them get it, and it was just terrific.
Q: You come from a family of avid collectors, which is certainly evident in the collection of hard-to-find goods at the Vermont Country Store. Do you or any of your family members have any other notable collections?
A: My father collected classic cars from the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. He had a 1925 Pierce-Arrow, which most people have never heard of. He also had a Rolls-Royce that was made on American soil in Springfield, Massachusetts. I didn’t even know that Rolls-Royces were made in America with left-hand drive. My father also collected plaster statuettes made by a famous sculptor named John Rogers. They were humorous, fun things that made everyone smile and laugh, and they were the most popular sculptures in America in the 19th century. In the late 1800s, many people bought one for their parlor. My father built a considerable collection of them. It was a good thing that my mother, Mildred Orton, did such a good job of running the Vermont Country Store’s business books. My father would have run the store out of business with his car collection and statuette collection if she hadn’t!
Q: Your collection encompasses the works of many Vermont artists, including Rockwell Kent, Mead Schaeffer, and Luigi Lucioni, among others. How did you define the parameters of your collection, and how did those parameters help to shape it?
A: I believe that the title of the exhibition at Bennington Museum and SVAC, For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection, perfectly sums up the parameters. The collection in itself was born out of my love for Vermont. Many of the most prominent artists in the collection were active in southern Vermont in the Manchester and Dorset area, which is very close to where I grew up in Weston. When the famous New York Times art critic, Edward Alden Jewell came up to visit Vermont in the 1930s, he was incredibly impressed by their artworks, and a lot of the artworks that he saw back then are present in my collection. The paintings were created by artists that moved here with their families, and they would not have stayed if they didn’t love Vermont as much as I do. I choose artworks based on whether they connect with me and provoke the same feelings of love for Vermont that inspired the artists that painted them. I don’t have a collection that is only comprised of “star” artists. I have famous artists present in there, but I don’t pass up a painting because it wasn’t painted by someone as well-known as Rockwell Kent or Luigi Lucioni. I gravitate towards paintings from what I call “The Golden Age of Vermont Art,” which I consider to be from the 1920s through the 1960s. I have several fantastic paintings from the 19th century and the latter half of the 20th century, but the primary focus is the early-to-mid 20th century.
Q: When Edward Alden Jewell came to southern Vermont to report on their burgeoning art auctions in the 1930s, his article in The New York Times had a considerable ripple effect on the artistic scene in Vermont and beyond. Do you believe that For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection is a continuation of that same metaphoric ripple of cultural expansion for the Vermont arts community?
A: Many of the artists that are present in the collection were original members of the Southern Vermont Artists, who exhibited their works together in the early 20th century here in Southern Vermont. This is the first time since then that a large group of works by those same artists is being shown together at an exhibition of this scale in Vermont. It’s amazing to have these artworks back in Vermont, and it’s a nice, full-circle moment. I believe the artists that became well-known as Vermont artists came up to Vermont because they wanted to have an experience that was very different from what one would find the past century, museums and galleries in Vermont have evolved. They have started to emulate urban art museums and galleries in terms of how the paintings are presented in a more exclusive way, and I do not think that is a step in the right direction. I think it’s time to reimagine what it means for people to walk into an arts center in Vermont. I want people to have the same type of remarkable feeling that Jewell had when he walked into the Burr & Burton Gymnasium years ago and saw those incredible paintings from the Southern Vermont Artists. I know from working at the Vermont Country Store that people who come to visit Vermont don’t want things to be the same as they are in the city. We’re going to hearken back to that show and everything it represented. We won’t be showing the paintings at the Burr & Burton Gymnasium, but we will be recapturing the spirit of those shows.
Q: Are there any unsung or lesser-known heroes or heroines of the Vermont arts scene that are present in For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection whose works that you intentionally wanted to highlight, preserve, and share with a wider audience?
A: There are a few wonderful paintings from female artists that were active during that era, such as Marion Huse and Bernadine Custer. I thought it was important to highlight their contributions, especially in the exhibits at SVAC and Bennington Museum, because they made a lasting impact that was often overlooked.
Q: Speaking of making a lasting impact, what is the statement that you are seeking to make with this collection in regards to Vermont’s artistic legacy?
A: My aim was to curate and produce an exhibition that people will remember regardless of whether or not they are avid art collectors, art aficionados, or have no background in art at all. There are many people out there who are not art experts, but they would be interested in art if it were made more enjoyable and accessible for them. I’ve always felt that the museum experience would be more welcoming if people could sit down, relax, and engage with the art at their own pace. In today’s world, it’s incredibly difficult to take a step back, pause, and enjoy real moments of human contact and meaningful experiences. I believe that when you come to Vermont, you can still talk to real people, see real art, and enjoy the culture and beauty of a real place. That’s what I want to accomplish with For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection.
Q: What are some of the ways that you plan on displaying the art and engaging with the audience to create a more welcoming museum environment?
A: We’re going to space the paintings out throughout the rooms of both museums in a way that tells a nice visual story. We’re also partnering with Shawn Harrington from Manchester Historical Society to create a special room at the SVAC exhibition with interesting historic artifacts, such as Arthur Jones’ painting table. There will also be interactive elements at the exhibition where people can express themselves and add thoughts, comments, and drawings, and we will have volunteer staff that will be walking the gallery floor and happy to answer their questions. The book that I worked on with Anita Rafael about the collection will also be for sale at the exhibition. I hope that people who come to see the exhibition can see Ver- mont in a different way than before, and that they will leave the museums loving Vermont even more than they ever have.
Q: We had a chance to read through an advance copy of the book that you and Anita Rafael put together. It’s incredibly well-written and provides crucial behind-the-scenes information about
your life and the origins of For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection. The book also contains many heartwarming stories from your childhood. How did you and Anita manage to capture all of those stories in the book?
A: Anita is a fantastic journalist and writer, and 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.
Q: For the Love of Vermont: the Lyman Orton Collection is a groundbreaking cultural collaboration that is decades in the making. How does it feel to see it all come together, and what are you most excited about?
A: I’ve been wanting to do an exhibition like this for years. It’s been a remarkable journey from the moment that I first started talking to Bennington Museum’s Curator, Jamie Franklin, and Southern Vermont Arts Center’s Artistic Director, Anne Corso, about mounting the show. Making sure that my love for Vermont is reflected in the exhibitions at Southern Vermont Arts Center and Bennington Museum took a lot of hard work, but it’s all going to be worth it. I can’t wait to see it all come together. We’re holding a Q&A session with Anita Rafael, Anne Corso, and myself on opening day at SVAC on July 22, and I’m looking forward to answering questions about the collection and what the exhibition means to me. This is the first real show from my collection, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes from here. I’m very serious about having this collection endure through time, because the art represents everything I love so much about Vermont.
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