Meghan Finnerty | November 01, 2021

E.E. Cummings Art Collection Restoration Completed

The story of how the renowned poet’s artwork made its way to SUNY Brockport’s Liberal Arts Building.

In an unmarked room in the basement of Tower Fine Arts Center, there is a historical treasure of artwork. It’s the largest collection of paintings from the poet E.E. Cummings. Most of them have rarely been seen. They hang on an organizational structure in a temperature-controlled room designed to protect the work.

How SUNY Brockport came to own the Hildegarde Lasell Watson Collection in 1978 is one story that Tim Massey, Brockport’s gallery director, doesn’t know for certain. However, the story of how the College discovered and restored them is one he knows well.

“It was a lot of work,” Massey said. “An interesting adventure.”

Over the past 15 years, SUNY Brockport, the Brockport Foundation, and donors worked to fund the restoration of the collection. The undertaking cost more than $96,000. The last restored paintings were returned to campus in June.

Michael Andriatch photo

Mike Andriatch

“Cummings made his name with his writing, but these pieces had some historical significance and the College and Foundation felt it was a worthwhile project to do,” said Mike Andriatch, Vice President for Advancement and President of the Brockport Foundation. “We’re glad we went down this road.”

Cummings was a renowned poet who painted often. However, his works don’t have a particular style and were not deemed particularly good. “He was a great mimic,” Massey said. Since the collection’s arrival, the work stayed mostly in storage except for when they were requested for shows across the country. But each time they were brought to light, the collection’s condition sparked talks of restoration.

Was it in poor condition before it came to Brockport? Some of it was. Brockport Foundation documents from 1984 reveal concern.

“The nature of the work however is a primary concern, Cummings had not concerned himself with using materials that would assure his work’s posterity,” the gallery’s director wrote. “The works are self-destructing and need to be stabilized.”

The Hidden Treasure

“Upon my arrival (2001), I was looking around in storage areas to see if I could find things like pedestals for the gallery. I went into kind of a closet-like room and I found a sizeable amount of artwork being stored. Not knowing what any of it was,” Massey recalls. “It wasn’t until I was digging through a cabinet that I found some file information that described it as the Cummings collection. I knew who Cummings was, but I never knew him to be a painter.”

A few years later, Massey was doing his typical summer work routine of patching holes in the gallery when Brockport’s interim president John Clark walked in and asked for a tour.

“I happened to open a flat file and said, ‘this is artwork by E.E. Cummings. We have like 70 something of them.’ His jaw literally dropped. It made a huge impression on him.”

Tim Massey with E.E. Cummings' art

Tim Massey with E.E. Cummings’ art

During Convocation that fall, Clark surprised the department when he announced that one of his main goals for the year was to uncover, evaluate and display the collection. That’s when Frank Short, dean of the School of Arts and Performance picked up the challenge to get the restoration funded.

“President Clark said that it was a shame that the collection was languishing in anonymity and in a general state of disrepair and said that he hoped we could do something to remedy the situation,” said Short. “I agreed wholeheartedly and eagerly looked around the room to see who was going to step up with a great idea or two. And I was looking at my colleagues I suddenly remembered that I was the dean and realized that maybe I was the one that needed to have a great idea or two.”

Together Short and Massey applied for two grants, one from the National Endowment for the Arts and another from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Both were denied.

“All along we’ve recognized these works as historical documents maybe more so than artistic artifacts. Cummings made the right career choice,” Massey laughed.

Short says after the failed grant proposals he realized they were going about this the wrong way. “Instead of trying to raise money to restore all 72 pieces at once, perhaps we should try to restore just one at a time and ask people to “adopt E.E. Cummings,” Short recalled.

That’s what Brockport did. Soon, approximately 60 paintings were adopted.

How They Came to Brockport

Dr. James Sibley Watson, Jr., a Rochester native, heir to the Western Union Telegraph fortune, a medical doctor, publisher, philanthropist, and friend of Cummings family, donated the Collection in 1978 after Cummings death. The Collection is named after Watson’s first wife, Hildegarde.

Phil Gerber, a Brockport English professor, had asked the Watson family for the work. However, The Port was unable to uncover exactly why Brockport was chosen for such a significant donation. An article published in Kaleidoscope, Brockport’s former alumni magazine, indicated that a family named the Mannings had deep connections with the College, and eventually, a Manning Daughter married a Watson son.

After nearly 30 years, they now have a prominent home on campus.

When the Liberal Arts Building opened in 2014, a gift from Diane and Jerry McCue allowed for a large display case to be built to showcase part of the collection. Adjacent is a giant quote from Cummings painted on the wall.

“I’m pleased that the college has a collection it can be proud of, and I’m pleased that we could do something to preserve the legacy of Cummings and to honor the generosity of our benefactors, Dr. James Sibley Watson, Jr. and his wife Nancy Watson Dean, who donated the collection.”
Frank Short