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Missourians who came to the rescue 40 years ago made Bingham exhibit possible

George Caleb Bingham drawing
Provided by The Saint Louis Art Museum
George Caleb Bingham drawing

This Sunday the St. Louis Art Museum is launching a new exhibit focused on an influential Missouri painter whose St. Louis legacy once teetered on the abyss. In 1975, the St. Louis Mercantile Library'scollection of George Caleb Bingham drawings was almost sold off to private collectors.

“People all across the state banded together, and school children contributed their pennies, and this great effort succeeded in securing the drawings for our state so they won’t be separated from each other,” said Janeen Turk, assistant curator of American art at the St. Louis Art Museum.

Curator Melissa Wolfe will join guest host Jim Althoff on Cityscape Friday at noon.

Assistant Curator of American Art at the St. Louis Art Museum Janeen Turk before Bingham painting
Credit Alex Heuer/St. Louis Public Radio
Assistant Curator of American Art at the St. Louis Art Museum Janeen Turk before Bingham painting on display

According to Turk, the danger passed when Missourians stepped up to purchase the collection on behalf of the people of the state for $1.8 million. Even school children participated in the collection drive. If the sale to private collectors had been completed, 112 of Bingham’s drawings could have been dispersed throughout the United States.

“Ultimately I think it’s a positive story even though there was this one moment where it was feared that they would be separated from one another and might be sold out of the state,” Turk said.

Forty-two of those drawings will be part of the new Art Museum exhibit, “Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River,” which opens this Sunday. The exhibit focuses primarily on Bingham’s paintings and drawings of boatmen and daily life along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. According to lead curator of American art, Melissa Wolfe, the images lend dignity to a lifestyle often portrayed as rough and rowdy.

Wolfe has only been with the museum since Jan. 6 and took over the project from her predecessor Andrew Walker. Walker is now director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, an institution credited with contributing to the exhibit. 

Navigating the West highlights the importance of river painting throughout Bingham’s career, and although the images are often serene, their history isn’t.