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Volume 26, Number 6 — June 2018

Museums benefit from Mary Jo Case's Collection

This earthenware, lead glaze and manganese decorated food jar is part of Mary Jo Case's collection. It is attributed to the Cain Pottery.
This earthenware, lead glaze and manganese decorated food jar is part of Mary Jo Case's collection. It is attributed to the Cain Pottery.
Additional photos below »

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | July 27, 2016

Mary Jo Case learned a great deal from museums and museum staff, and she is dedicated to helping them grow their collections of Tennessee materials.

She credits the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, Tennessee; Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Virginia, for not only teaching her but for sharing the beauty of Tennessee craftsmanship with the world.

She repays their influence by donating, loaning or selling them parts of her collection and by locating pieces for them. Her relationship with MESDA is long and storied. She's visited their museum multiple times, uses their extensive field research to help identify pieces and serves on their board. Most importantly, from both Case's and MESDA's viewpoint, she wanted MESDA to have an important Tennessee collection.

"It's a really fine museum and does more field research on furniture than any other Southern museum. When I first started going there, I wished we [Tennessee] had better representation in the museum. I was determined that one day I might talk to them about getting Tennessee furniture represented."

Her determination paid off, and her quest for representation succeeded beyond anything she'd dreamed.

Robert Leath, vice president collections and research and chief curator at MESDA, says, "Over the years she has helped us build a Tennessee collection worthy ofthe Volunteer State with regional pottery, a punched-tin decorated food safe from Washington County, an important sideboard by the Greene Countycabinetmaker Christian Burgner and an elaborately decorated corner cupboard by the McAdams family of Washington County that actually sparked theirdiscovery. Thanks to Mary Jo's generosity we now know who is responsible for the elusive "rope and tassel' furniture group from East Tennessee.

"Mary Jo Case is almost singularly responsible for the Tennessee Gallery at MESDA. She helped us acquire the bulk of our collection on display there, andher enthusiasm inspired other Tennesseans to support MESDA's effort to better represent Tennessee.

"Mary Jo Case is one of those rare collectors who knows her region like the back of her hand. By all museum professionals, she is considered the Queen ofEast Tennessee Decorative Arts. MESDA owes her a tremendous debt of gratitude."

Her relationship with MESDA led her to Colonial Williamsburg. Ron Hurst and Margaret Pritchard visited Case with a group from MESDA and "were just blown away with East Tennessee — the area, the towns, the decorative arts and the great furniture," says Case. "When Ron Hurst asked if they could borrow furniture for their five-year exhibit, I was very honored."

Hurst, vice president for collections, conservation and museums and The Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, says this about Case.

"Colonial Williamsburg has a large and important collection of American decorative arts, including substantial holdings from the South.Unfortunately, our representation of the important materials produced in Tennessee was completely inadequate until a few years ago.About that time my colleagues and I were introduced to Mary Jo, and she took us under her wing.Mary Jo was just as anxious to see Tennessee's contributions represented in a major east coast museum, as we were to tell the world about Tennessee. She was our tutor on Tennessee material, helped us find objects to acquire for exhibition, loaned us important material from her own collection and also donated important Tennessee furniture and pottery to our museum.

"Mary Jo recently gave a great Greene County cherry and poplar safe with excellent punched tin panels. She also gave a large piece of redware from the Cain Pottery in Sullivan County. She has loaned us several key pieces of Tennessee furniture for a long term exhibition called "A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early South.'And we acquired from her collection an important Hawkins County corner cupboard and a Washington County sampler.

"We think of Mary Jo not only as a mentor and a remarkable collector, but a real friend. She's a leader in the field of Tennessee material culture, but the most important thing to note is that she's one of the nicest people you'll ever meet."

Case has loaned her furniture to the Tennessee State Museum, the Frist Center for the Visual Art and to "Cultural Heritage Project" exhibits at the William King Museum of Arts.

Frank Horton and his mother Theodosia Taliaferro founded MESDA. As antique dealers and collectors, they were dedicated to raising awareness of objects made in the South.

According to MESDA's website, "During the first half of the 20th century, Southern antiques were mostly dismissed by scholars and ignored by collectors. A movement to challenge the existing attitudes — cultivated by a handful of influential southern collectors, dealers and museum professionals — began in 1949 with the first Williamsburg Antiques Forum at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, which included a seminal session that called attention to the lack of information about southern craftsmanship.

"MESDA is the preeminent center for researching, collecting and exhibiting decorative arts made and used by those living and working in the early South. It is home to the finest collection of southern decorative arts in the country.

"The results of the museum's efforts to fulfill its mission have extended well beyond the exhibition of the collection to include groundbreaking field research programs, award-winning publications, a respected research center and decorative arts library, and exceptional educational programs such as the Graduate Summer Institute co-sponsored by MESDA and the University of Virginia.

"MESDA's innovative research program, launched in the early 1970s and continuing today, has identified nearly 20,000 objects and 80,000 artists and artisans from the early South.The fruits of these research programs are available for public use in the MESDA Research Center." They can also be accessed online through MESDA's website,, through a partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Carolina Digital Libraries and Archives.

For more information about MESDA, visit

About Colonial Williamsburg

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation oversees much more than the restored historic village. It also operates two museums and Basset Hall.

Basset Hall is an 18th-century frame house on 585 acres of garden and woodlands. It is where John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller lived during the early restoration of the historic area of Williamsburg, which they financed. It is open to the public and looks much as it did in the 1930s and "40s when the Rockefellers lived there.

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum offers exhibitions of American folk art. Their collection of folk art includes paintings, carvings, toys and needlework and is characterized by bold colors, simplified shapes and surface paintings.

Case's furniture is in the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, which is home to a collection of American and British antiques. The collection includes furniture, metals, ceramics, glass, paintings, prints, firearms and textiles from the 17th through 19th centuries. It is also home to Williamsburg's conservation labs and preventative conservation group.

For more information, visit

> The Bachman Martin Dobyns Home restored

Topics: Art

This inlaid desk has been loaned to Sen. Lamar Alexander and Colonial Williamsburg.

This inlaid desk has been loaned to Sen. Lamar Alexander and Colonial Williamsburg.

Sideboard attributed to Christian Burgner is in the collection of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (Photo by Dan Routh)