Today I took a quick trip to Orlando and stopped at one of my favorite small museums, the Menello Museum of American Art. Dedicated mostly to the work of primitive painter Earl Cunningham, of St. Augustine, it has a small gallery of other Florida folk painters and a tiny but nice bookstore; actually, it’s not a store, but just a couple of shelves. And this was where I discovered that Davenport, Iowa is host to one of the country’s finest collections of Mexican Colonial art, painted during the several hundred years that Mexico was a Spanish colony.
The museum is based on the collection of a late 19th-early 20th century collector from Iowa named C.A. Ficke. He was born in Germany but brought to the US at the age of two and grew up in Iowa. Once he had made his fortune in land development, he became a wide-ranging collector of art, and was particularly attracted by the art of Colonial Mexico. He was advised by a Mexican scholar in the selection of the paintings, most of which were acquired from private parties (he lists sources such as “an old priest” and “the thieves’ market”). He left his collection to the City of Davenport, and it was the foundation for the collection of the future Davenport Museum of Art, now known as the Ficke Museum.
At the same time, a Missouri woman named Margaret Barber was collecting everything she laid eyes on, including “works of Spanish painters.” She also collected furniture, needlework, pewter, porcelain, etc., etc. In the 1950s, after her death, her collections were broken up, with the Mexican paintings going to William Wood College in Missouri. They were bought by the Davenport Museum in 1992 to add to its Mexican art collection.
This made up for the loss of some of the Ficke collection in the 1940s and 1950s, when the museum entered on hard times and actually sold some of its collection. It has recovered some of the paintings, but not all.
The collection spans hundreds of years and has some of the finest of the early Mexican painters. The excellent catalog was prepared by Marcus Burke, curator of paintings at The Hispanic Society. You can visit the collection at the Ficke Museum’s excellent website.