American art brought Washington native Graham C. Boettcher to the Magic City in 2006. At the time, he was taking on the role of a post-doctoral curatorial fellow in American art at the Birmingham Museum of Art. “I fell in love with the museum and the city,” he says. “I was fortunate that after two years, funds were given to enable me to stay here as the William Cary Hulsey Curator of American Art.”
Boettcher traces his path in art back to the time he spent with his great-grandmother as a child. “Beginning when I was 5, she took me to the Whatcom Museum of History and Art in my hometown of Bellingham, Washington, where I was fascinated by the art of the Northwest Coastal Native Americans,” he recalls.
His interest in American art solidified at Yale where he majored in German studies with a formal concentration in Northern European art history. “During the second semester of my senior year, I took a survey of American art with Yale’s Jules Prown and was struck by the similarity between the American Hudson River School and the German Romantics,” he says. “This became the subject of my master’s thesis, from which point on I dedicated myself to the study of American art.”
Boettcher envisioned a career as a professor, but after completing an internship at the Yale University Art Gallery, he knew he wanted to channel his passion for art in a different direction. “I’m a very hands-on, object-oriented art historian,” he explains. “Though I love teaching, I realized I needed to be surrounded by the objects I was studying.”
Photo courtesy of Birmingham Museum of Art. Ironically — or fatefully — during the first exhibition he worked on at the Tate Britain in 2002, he encountered a work from the Birmingham Museum of Art: “Looking Down the Yosemite Valley, California” (1865) by Albert Bierstadt, one of the institution’s most famous pieces. “I never dreamed that four years later, I would be the curator overseeing this incredible work,” he says. To tell the full story of the painting, Boettcher says he would need a lot more time. But, as teasers, he notes that “it survived the Great Chicago Fire, was purchased by a Birmingham woman at a Cape Cod yard sale in 1929, and is considered by the National Endowment for the Humanities as one of the 50 works of art that best tells America’s story.”
What’s his favorite piece in BMA’s American art collection? “I always tell people that if I’m hit by a bus tomorrow, the one painting that needs to be mentioned in my obituary as the acquisition of which I’m proudest is Robert S. Duncanson’s “Dream of Italy (1865),” he says. “In my 10 years at the BMA, I’ve worked diligently to add important works by the leading African-American artists to our collection of historical American art. Finding the perfect Duncanson for our collection was a major coup. It’s particularly meaningful because Duncanson painted it in Canada at the end of the Civil War, at a time it was becoming clear that he could finally leave his self-imposed exile and return to his home and community of fellow artists in Cincinnati.”
Looking to the future, Boettcher says he would like the American art collection to “delve deeper into early modernism” and “create more connections between the American collection and other parts of the BMA’s permanent collection, including Asian and Native American art.” He says, “There are so many stories to tell that show the influence of other cultures on American art, and the interconnectedness of American artists and makers with the world across time. I think these are compelling stories that our visitors would enjoy.”