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Utica art museum brings Golden Age artists to central New York

This summer, the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute is hosting an exhibition featuring some of the world's greatest European painters, from Rembrandt to Rubens, called The "Golden Age of European Painting."

It isn't long after stepping foot into the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute that one sees why the city of Utica is excited to show off its most recent art exhibit, including the "Portrait of Madame Adelaide."

Credit Gino Geruntino / WRVO
"Portrait of Madame Adelaide."

"What you see up above in this painting, where you see that relief depicted at the top of it, so that is her and her sister at her father's deathbed," says Museum Director Anna D'Ambrosio, discussing a hulking piece painted by Adelaide Labille-Guiard. "These are family members that pre-deceased her. Her parents a I believe her sister. These are architectural drawings for a building that she was involved in. So again, many, many layers of the story."

D'Ambrosio says the piece, including its ornate gilded frame, stands more than 11 feet tall.

"So the backstory to this too, is it took about 10 people to install this artwork," she explained.

It's one of 70 works on display at the nearly 100-year-old museum that has become a popular stop for tourists. D'Ambrosio says this summer's exhibit is from the Speed Museum in Kentucky and was planned about two years in advance. In recent years, she says the museum has worked hard to bring unusual and famous exhibitions to Utica each summer.

"For the museum of art, we really try to diversify our exhibition program," D'Ambrosio said. "We build on our incredibly wonderful permanent collection, which alone is 300 years of American art. But we try to get materials such as the Golden Age, such as Andy Warhol, so that we offer diversity to our audience."

Credit Gino Geruntino / WRVO
The dress up area is one of several interactive areas where young and old visitors alike can become a part of the exhibit.

The exhibit also includes an interactive experience for visitors, including incense stations and dress-up areas where a visitor can insert themselves into a painting.

"So there are different smells," D'Ambrosio explained. "Here we are in the Saints and Sinners, or the religious imagery, and we have a box we can smell incense. So in another section, there is an interior of a stable and we have a stable scent box. It's a sweet stable smell."

For some exhibit visitors, like Ricky Doolittle, simply being in the presence of some of the greatest works of art in history, including one painted by Rembrandt, is experience enough.

"I think the breadth of the talent that is shown in this from all these difference European counties. But also I think the way they painted, you can barely see the brushstrokes, but the details that are there are phenomenal."

And by looking at the 70 pieces gracing the upper floor of the museum, one can certainly be taken back a few centuries. Whether it's Pieter Can Slingelandt's small portrait of several maids working in the kitchen, or a large painting of several men playing dice in a back room painted by Nicolas Tournier, D'Ambrosio says each piece provokes a feeling.

"One of the great things about this exhibition is that you don't have to know anything about art history to take something away from it," D'Ambrosio said. "We're really drawn in by the impact that this experience with an authentic work of art and its scale, its color, the story it relates, the story it tells about the artist that created it."

Credit Gino Geruntino / WRVO
Paul Schweizer (center) leads a discussion with a group of people about the exhibit.

That's a message the Museum Director Emeritus Paul Schweizer tried to promote while he was working for the museum. On this day he was leading a discussion about the exhibit, taking questions from a group of about 30 people. He says the museum, like all educational outlets, wants people to understand the world around them, even if they don't leave Utica.

"These visual documents have a universal message that transcends language and encourages understandings of people and cultures and history in times and places that you and I certainly never can be at," Schweizer explained.

The "Golden Age of European Painting" exhibit is on display at Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute until September 14.