Amy Miller Dehan – Curator of Decorative Arts and Design

February 23rd, 2014  |  Published in *, February 2014, Profiles

by Laura Hobson

“I was always interested in art,” says Amy Miller Dehan, 37, curator of decorative arts and design at the Cincinnati Art Museum.  “My father Richard Miller was an artist, but he needed to find a career to support his family so he went into the transportation business in Washington, Pennsylvania.  I remember lying on the floor with my dad.  He drew anything I asked.  These sketches came to life,” said Dehan. On Saturdays, she went to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

Amy Dehan

Dehan’s maternal grandmother was always interested in antiques. But, “I wasn’t too aware of decorative arts,” she said about her early life.  She was drawn more to paintings and traditional art.  “We didn’t have a lot of money, so our home furnishing style was eclectic,” said Dehan.  Her father’s parents owned a historic farm house in Washington, Pennsylvania.  The deed for the late 18th century/early 19th century house was signed by George Washington.

Tracing her interest back in time, it was Mrs. Myra Patterson, an art teacher in high school, who introduced her to art history.  Dehan began her career in art education, but decided to go into museum work after spending a semester at American University in Washington, DC  in the spring of 1995.  She graduated from the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia where she received a B.A. in art history in 1997.  From there, she continued her interest in art history at University of South Columbia where she received a M.A.  In addition, she received a museum management certificate from USC.

Co-leading a wood identification seminar

Her real love is working with objects and connecting them to visitors.  This led her to curatorial work.  After doing internships at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, she began her career at the Cincinnati Art Museum where she began her rise through the curatorial ranks in decorative arts and design.

In 2001, Dehan had the opportunity to work on the Cincinnati Wing under the direction of Anita Ellis, then curator of decorative arts, now deputy director for curatorial affairs.  Ellis served as a mentor to Dehan, even to this day.  “I cut my teeth on the Cincinnati Wing, not being a native of the area,” said Dehan.  “Through that project, I really discovered what I wanted to focus on.”  Curator of decorative Arts and design since January 2012, she is mounting a significant exhibit, “Cincinnati Silver,” from June 14 to September 7, 2014.  Using the permanent collection more, the museum has a goal of 30,000 attendees for the silver show.

Installing What’s New

Accompanying the exhibit is the issuance of her book Cincinnati Silver:  1788-1940, published by Giles, Ltd. of London, England.  Her interest in the book grew out of the Cincinnati Wing and the history of metals.  Her 400-page book, Cincinnati Silver offers new scholarship about the development of the silver industry and decline.  In addition, the book provides 150 biographies of principals and makers with images of the owners and their work.  It took Dehan over ten years to write the book, which contains 400 pictures and 350 – 400 maker’s marks.  Costing $100 for the hardback edition, it will be available in June at the Cincinnati Art Museum shop and on Amazon.com.

Another achievement of Dehan’s is Outside the Ordinary:  Glass, Wood and Ceramics from the Wolf Collection, a book she edited in 2009.  Based on donations from Cincinnatians Nancy and David Wolf, the book focuses on nearly 200 pieces of contemporary glass, ceramics and turned wood.  This tied into an exhibit in 2009 as well as an endowment from the Wolfs.

With regard to acquisitions, Dehan cited four Tiffany glass windows installed in 1904 at St. Michael’s and All Angels Church, originally an Episcopal church, now an outreach center.  Sold to the museum at a reasonable price, the windows are now on display.  Megan Emery, former objects conservator, and Gillian Thompson, local contractor, cleaned and reassembled the windows, which were covered with coal dust.  Three of the four windows are related to the Robert Mitchell family, originally from Ireland who migrated to Cincinnati. Designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany at the turn of the twentiethcentury, the windows are the only Tiffany ones at the museum, although there are others in town.

Tiffany’s father, Charles, created silver works.  It was Charles Tiffany who established Tiffany & Co.   Two of his loving cups were acquired by the museum; one was purchased at auction by Dehan’s predecessor Jennifer Howe. This cup features a buffalo chase scene in silver, dating back to 1901.  Charles Fleischmann saw the cup and said, “I have one of those.”  He dropped off his cup, given to his grandfather as a 50th century anniversary present, to a security guard at the museum as a donation in 2004.  This one was displayed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition at the World’s Fair held in Chicago.  .

The biggest roadblock Dehan faces is that the field of decorative arts is more of a stretch to the visitors of the museum.  “People want to see fine paintings and sculpture,” she noted.  Her goal is to connect those things that opens people’s eyes and exposes people to these arts.    In her role as curator, she has trained several new classes of docents, specifically in decorative arts.  Another challenge is to raise funds for decorative arts acquisitions, which does not compare to endowed funds available for American and European paintings.

Dehan’s responsibilities encompass a wide range of exhibitions, acquisitions, lectures and publications with subjects ranging from the 17th century to present.  “I feel a bit schizophrenic at times,” she said.  For instance, she worked with Boston collectors, Jeffrey and Carol Horvitz, to display contemporary Japanese ceramics in the Barbizon Gallery featuring paintings from the mid 19th century.  Another exhibit she curated was the “Art of Sound:  Four Centuries of Musical Instruments” in the summer of 2012.  There were 200 pieces from around the world.  Quick Response (QR) codes were used on select labels to connect to videos which demonstrated more about the instruments.

With a department of one, Dehan regularly collaborates with other curators, conservators and donors.  A $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts helped the museum with costs to put on the silver exhibit and fund the catalog. “We have been resourceful based on our staffing and funding,” said Dehan.

“For many, design is perceived as something more contemporary, but decorative arts are design; they always have been,” noted Dehan.  “And, we’ve been collecting contemporary design or decorative arts as an institution since our founding.  I really see no significant difference in the addition of this word,” said Dehan in reference to the addition of the word ‘design’ in her title.  For example, there will be a 1962 Porsche car displayed in the museum promoting design in April 2014.

She has memberships in several organizations, including The Decorative Arts Society of Cincinnati, where she serves as advisor.  In addition, she is a member of the New York Silver Society and the London Silver Society.

Dehan is not all about art:  she has a husband, Brian, who works for Besl Transfer Co. as director of safety.  With two children, Audrey and Caitlyn, they reside in Anderson Township.  She serves as a PTA member and has a busy schedule with swimming lessons and horse fair projects.

With a collection of almost 7,000 objects, the Decorative Arts and Design Department has grown over the years.  They include furniture, glass, ceramics, metalwork and architectural design from the Western world.  In her role as curator, “I really love the research and connecting people to objects,” Dehan said.

At this point, she is happy to be where she is.

Comments are closed.