Story by Shannon Dale
When you first lay eyes on the intricate designs of Mr. Richard Blackwell, it may surprise you to know that many of his famous pieces, soon to be on exhibition at the Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising, were purchased in department stores across Middle America. Mr. Blackwell wanted to design for “real” American women, not just Hollywood starlets.
Mr. Blackwell: “Artist of Subtle Witchery,” one of the Avenir Museum’s inaugural exhibitions, also includes a gown made for Hollywood actress Jane Russell, and one of Mr. Blackwell’s favorites: a black silk shantung mermaid gown with a sequined skirt and collar.
You can see the Mr. Blackwell gowns at the Avenir Museum grand opening, Saturday, Jan. 30, from 2 to 5 p.m., 216 E. Lake St. The event is free and open to the public. No RSVP is required and guests can drop in at any time.
The Avenir’s relationship with Mr. Blackwell and his longtime partner, Robert Spencer, has been a lengthy one, dating back to the 1980s. Always forward thinking, the couple left a portion of their estate to the Avenir Museum to support the collection. The estate gift named The Richard Blackwell Gallery, where fittingly, the first exhibition will be a selection of his gowns.
Through the couple’s generosity, museum staff were able to purchase 48 additional storage cabinets, doubling their storage capacity, which allowed for better care for the collection and gave them ample room to grow in the future. Mr. Blackwell passed away in 2008 and Spencer in 2014.
“This estate gift moves us way ahead on our path to formal museum accreditation, assures donors of optimal collections care, and provides students with years of opportunity to learn and work in a best practices setting,” explains Doreen Beard, Avenir Museum director of operations and engagement. “From a museum staff point-of-view, a gift of this nature – broadly bestowed so that we can direct it to the greatest need – is a rare and treasured gift. We are grateful to Mr. Blackwell and Spencer for their trust in the Avenir Museum!”
As the holder of the world’s largest public collection of Mr. Blackwell designs, CSU has been able to use the couture apparel as both exhibition pieces and educational tools in the classroom. The collection has served as design inspiration for many students and as a lesson in construction.
“His aesthetic is very feminine and classic, very unlike his over-the-top persona. I think that dichotomy is quite interesting,” says Megan Osborne, curator of the Avenir Museum. “One of his signature elements is a small bow at the top of every zipper. Even on edgier garments, this small feminine detail is present. Our design students will often examine the interiors of the dresses because the construction of his garments is immaculate.”
In addition, Mr. Blackwell donated a number of original patterns used in the early stages of the design process, which are used to study the history of garment sizing. Mr. Blackwell also donated his business and advertising archive, which helps to tell the story of mid-20th century fashion promotion. Finally, graduate students have had firsthand preservation experience, working on the stabilization of the aging pieces.
The exhibition, Mr. Blackwell: “Artist of Subtle Witchery,” will feature pieces that have never been on exhibition before. Several are also quite delicate and this will be the last time they will ever be on view to the public due to their increasingly fragile condition. The title, “Artist of Subtle Witchery,” comes from a 1960s advertisement for Mr. Blackwell designs.
In addition to the Mr. Blackwell gowns, the new expanded and renovated museum space will include two additional exhibitions, and the satellite Avenir Gallery in the University Center for the Arts will also show a new exhibition as part of the opening:
Layers of Meaning: Color and Design in Guatemalan Textiles — This colorful exhibition in the Avenir Museum Gallery features traditional Guatemalan textiles, donated by two longtime supporters: New Mexico-based textile and folk art collector and author Martha Egan, and Mary Littrell, textile collector and former head of the Department of Design and Merchandising.
Tiny Bits and Pieces — Lucile Hawks (’58), donor and longtime supporter of the historic costume and textile collection, is also a talented quilter. This exhibition, in the Lucile E. Hawks Gallery space, features exquisite miniature quilts, which are part of the Avenir Museum’s permanent collection.
The Power of Maya Women’s Artistry — A traveling exhibition of contemporary work by the textile artists of Cooperativa de Alfombras de Mujeres Maya en Guatemala, (The Maya Women’s Rug Hooking Cooperative of Guatemala), will be in the Avenir Gallery located in Room 115 of the main University Center for the Arts. The traveling exhibition is funded in part by the Don and May Wilkins Charitable Trust, the Avenir Museum Education Exhibition Endowment and Cooperativa de Alfombras de Mujeres Maya en Guatemala.
More information on the Avenir Museum is available at www.avenir.colostate.edu. Beginning Feb. 1, the museum hours will be 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday – Friday.