Nancy Rivard Shaw, American Art Curator, Remembered

  • March 23, 2020 15:34

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Frederic Edwin Church, Cotopaxi, 1862.
Detroit Institute of Arts

Nancy Rivard Shaw, Curator Emerita of American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), passed away on Friday, March 13, 2020, in Summerfield, Florida. An internationally renowned specialist in American art of the 19th and early 20th centuries, she had published extensively, organized numerous groundbreaking exhibitions, and lectured widely in the United States and abroad.

Born in Saginaw, Michigan, Nancy attended Oakland University, graduating magna cum laude in 1969. Four years later, in 1973, she received her MA in Art History from Wayne State University, where she worked with the noted American architectural historian Wayne Andrews to produce her pioneering thesis on Eliel Saarinen.  

Cover of "American Paintings From the Manoogian Collection: From the Hudson River School to Impressionism" by Nancy Rivard Shaw, et al.

In 1972 Nancy accepted the position of assistant curator at the DIA, where she quickly brought to light works by the American Impressionists and Tonalists, which had long languished in storage. Early in her career she also organized an exhibition of American women artists in the museum’s collection that also had been long ignored.

In 1975, she was promoted to Curator of American Art. At the time, she was one of the few women to head an American art department in a major museum. During her tenure she organized many acclaimed exhibitions, including John Singer Sargent and the Edwardian Age (1979) and The Quest for Unity: American Art Between World’s Fairs (1983), and co-organized several exhibitions that focused on the collection of fellow Detroiter and close confidant Richard A. Manoogian, whom she advised for several decades on the development of his collection.  Nancy added depth and importance to the DIA’s collection of American art, including the acquisition of Cotopaxi by Frederic Church, The Mosquito Nets by John Singer Sargent, Medusa by Harriet Hosmer, and the life-size standing figure of Pandora by Chauncey Ives.

She expanded the focus of the decorative arts beyond the Federal period to include significant works by the Herter Brothers for the Vanderbilt and Mark Hopkins houses; the Dining Room Table from the Blacker House, designed by Greene & Greene; monumental examples of Aesthetic Movement silver; and imposing ceramic ewers by Jacques Sicard and Rookwood. Nancy also refined and broadened the scope of the glass collection. Her acquisitions were foundational to making the DIA’s holdings of American art among the finest in the world.  

In 1998 Nancy retired with her husband Dan to Beaufort, South Carolina, where she turned her focus to Southern art. She wrote extensively on such well-known painters as Elliott Daingerfield, as well as more obscure artists, and lectured on artistic impressions of the South.  After moving to Florida in 2004, she continued her work in American art, publishing and lecturing on a variety of art historical subjects from museum collections to the work of Florine Stettheimer.

Nancy was beloved by numerous colleagues and patrons in the museum world.  Upon her retirement from the DIA, the Associates of the American Art purchased a monumental pair of Eagle Argand Lamps in her honor and funded the excavation and transformation of two Pewabic tile-lined niche into cases for late 19th- and early 20th-century decorative art, in the Mary Ann and Eugene Gargaro Gallery housed in the Richard and Jane Manoogian American Wing of the DIA.

Nancy was active in the artistic communities wherever she lived, jurying exhibitions; performing with theater groups; and singing in numerous choirs, including St. Timothy’s Choir and the Celebration Choir, and barbershop groups such as The Beaufort Belles, The Belle Chords, and Sisters in Harmony in Florida. Throughout her life she also painted abstract landscapes.  The American art world that Nancy so admired will be a bit less glamorous with her loss.

Condolences may be sent to Dan Shaw, 9319 S. E. 137th Street Road, Summerfield, FL 34491 or Donations may be made in Nancy’s name to the Detroit Institute of Arts for the purchase of artwork in her honor for the Department of American Art.

Tags: american art

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