Collecting Icons From A Progressive Culture
When Stephen Miller paid his first visit to the Hancock Shaker Village in Hancock, Mass., it was not the light-filled interiors, or the glorious staircase in the main dwelling house with its curvilinear hand-railing, or the three-tiered round barn designed so that one person could tend to the needs of a large herd of dairy cattle that captured his imagination.
Rather, it would prove to be the story behind these elements — the seamless integration of daily life, work and belief, sprung from a radically progressive culture that fostered innovation and ingenuity — that would haunt him. The creative contributions that flowed from this essentially tiny constellation of Believers extending from New England and New York west to Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, and south to Georgia and Florida, was staggering; Shakers shook traditional approaches literally to the foundations, whether it was in design and layout decisions or building and farming practices.
In the 39 years since his first encounter with the remnants of this world, Miller has taken his once-quixotic mission — to learn about and to collect the best of all things Shaker “within a price I could afford” — to great heights, becoming a foremost collector and published authority. Now, in his own 74th year, he’s in the process of finding good homes for his extensive holdings. In April, his collection of Shaker ephemera, considered the largest and best of its kind, was donated to Hamilton College, an institution known as a center for studies of American Utopian societies based in Clinton, New York.
In June, he’ll oversee the opening of the New Britain Museum of American Art’s permanent Shaker Gallery (he is in the process of giving the museum much of the rest of his collection). Augmented by an already-growing endowment established by Miller and his wife, Miriam, the NBMAA gallery will be one of only three found in United States art museums, the other two being at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Philadelphia Museum of Art. With Miller serving as curator, the museum is well on its way to becoming a center for scholarship and symposia.