Alexandra “Allie” Copeland, MLIS, curator at the New Bedford Free Public Library, has a refreshingly egalitarian approach to art appreciation.
“My personal philosophy is if the only thing you get out of a painting is ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it,’ that’s totally valid,” said Copeland, who joined the New Bedford library staff in September 2019.
Copeland’s education would appear to make her ideally suited for her position. The Woodstock, Connecticut, native earned a bachelor of arts degree in art history and Spanish from Simmons College (now University) in Boston in 2014, followed by a master’s degree in library and information sciences with a concentration on cultural heritage, also from Simmons, in 2016.
She further developed her professional skills during a dean’s fellowship at Simmons, with projects including digitization and organization of its permanent art collection, and a Sharf fellowship at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, doing cataloging projects in its library, the museum school’s library, and the Prints, Drawings and Photographs department.
Before coming to New Bedford, Copeland was collections manager/registrar for the Rye Historical Society’s Square House Museum in Rye, New York.
While she is happy to show visitors around the New Bedford library’s art room during its scheduled open hours, there is still plenty to admire throughout the building when the room is closed.
Copeland prepared a small printed guide to the collection that is a treasure map for art lovers. A diagram of each floor pinpoints the artworks and indicates the highlights, such as Deborah Macy’s portrait of Dr. Jibreel A-K. Khazan (2004) on the first floor and William Allen Wall’s “Birth of the Whaling Industry” (1853) on the second floor.
On the third floor, outside the art room, are display cases for temporary exhibits, as well as a variety of paintings, wood carvings, and — always — a single hand-colored engraving from the library’s treasured edition of John J. Audubon’s “Birds of America,” which changes periodically.
The collection also includes less-expected items, such as a Pairpoint-manufactured bowling trophy for a millworkers’ league, and Cape Verdean pugilists in a small boxing ring, carved by Manuel Lopes. A recent acquisition is a group of hand fans advertising New Bedford businesses. An elegant Gibson girl illustration graces the flip side of an ad for Swift and Son (“Headquarters for Men’s Hot Weather Necessities”); another fan urges, “Keep cool and refreshed — drink New Bedford Bottling Company’s products.”
In short, every visitor will find something to intrigue them.
Here, Copeland tells The New Bedford Light about the free public library’s special collection, how it grows, and her philosophy of how art enriches those who engage with it.
New Bedford Light: Are visitors to the art room mostly local, or tourists?
Alexandra Copeland: It’s a mix. One of the most common comments I get is, someone will come up, an older person, and say, “I haven’t been here since I did a field trip when I was in high school.” So you get locals who are coming back into the building, and then we do get some people who heard about us from one of our events, and they’re from out of town. We get a lot of locals who have visitors from out of town and bring them in, so that’s a good portion. And sometimes it’s just somebody who’s in the library to get books and they’ve wandered up to the third floor, which is great. So I think probably we skew more [to] locals, but we do get some visitors from out of town. …
One of the big draws is that it’s free. So if you’re someone who likes to visit historic buildings or see historic works, you can pay and do other things in the city — the Whaling Museum, the Rotch-Jones-Duff House — but you can also come see this collection for free.
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NBL: How has the material being added to the collection changed through the years? Has it become more eclectic?
AC: A lot of the collection got built in the late 1800s, early 1900s. The library is one of the oldest [free public] libraries in the country. We were started in 1853 with a collection of books and other objects from the New Bedford Social Library, and among those objects was the first painting in the collection, which is a portrait of William Rotch [Sr.].
From there, it was mostly maritime works, landscapes, and portraits of important whaling captains for a good chunk of time. Then we had a particular director in the early 1900s or so who was really interested in growing the collection, and that’s when we got our [Albert] Bierstadts, and that’s when the collection grew in that direction. After him, there was a sort of stagnant period. We don’t have a purchasing fund, so there wasn’t active collecting.
There wasn’t an art curator until about 13 years ago. My predecessor, Janice Hodson, was the first art curator, and kind of formalized the donation process. Since she started, and since I’ve been here, we have changed our collecting focus to include more contemporary work to try to increase diversity in the artists and representation in the collection … so it actually reflects the City of New Bedford.
So now we have a lot more artists from Swain School [of Design], and from modern art, and different types of art — photographs and that kind of thing that hadn’t really been part of the collection previously. So that’s the biggest change, although to be fair, when they were collecting in the early 1900s, that work was contemporary.
NBL: Does the library accept everything that people want to donate?
AC: No. We do have a collecting policy that has been approved by our board of trustees, and it does limit what we accept into the permanent collection. … When people want to donate things, basically I’ll do an evaluation of what I can find in terms of history, or significance of an artist or of a work. I will evaluate the condition, if it’s exhibitable, and I’ll take all that information and make a recommendation to our board, and the art committee will then vote on whether or not they want to accept it into the permanent collection.
We have to do that because accepting something into the permanent collection — how I’ve explained it is, it’s basically us making a commitment to take care of that object for the life of the institution.
NBL: What is the biggest draw for visitors?
AC: Our big names are Bierstadt and Audubon. Those are the ones that people know we have, and want to see, which is understandable. They’re the nationally known artists in the collection. There’s a lot more locally famous or well-known artists that include [William] Bradford, [Lemuel] Eldred, all those other names that people in the area know …
We have a complete set of Audubon’s “Birds of America” from the first edition, which was originally printed, starting in 1832, as a subscription series. There’s 435 birds in the series. What makes our collection important is that we have the full set. There are not a lot of complete sets left. … The subscriber for our series was James Arnold, and he donated the set to the library in 1866.
They’ve since been removed from their bindings so that … we can use them for exhibit and for study. I have had people who are interested in seeing particular birds, and of course they can get in touch with me and I can pull those [out]. Otherwise … when people come in and are interested, I open up a couple of drawers and show them some of the prints that are on top, and those rotate out periodically.
So those are our big draws.
NBL: Last summer, you were working with photographer Phil Mello to create a digital archive. Is that available online?
AC: He helped us photograph all of our paintings, and those are now available on the library’s art collection website. … They’ve already been very useful in research requests. We’ve had a couple of publication requests that before I wouldn’t have been able to service, because I didn’t have a good photo. So I’ve been able to supply researchers with those images, which has been great.
NBL: How do young people respond to the art?
AC: I think the most interaction I have is when a class group comes through. I think there’s a lot of interest in the working aspect of it. Whenever I have things out on the [work] table, and I’m matting things, or I had a painting out here that had just come back from conservation, so it had plastic over it and it was in a box. And immediately, they gravitate towards, “What is this? What’s going on here?” So I think one of the things that interests them is “What do you do here?” …
I think the high school kids especially, they’re interested in what we do, and that’s I think one of the best things to be able to talk about.
NBL: How does experiencing art benefit the viewer?
AC: It’s a difficult question, because I think everybody responds differently. But one of the questions I get a lot is, “Why is there an art collection in this building?” And one of my answers is that the library’s mission is to inspire lifelong learning. It’s part of the last line in our mission statement. And I think there are people who learn through visual stimulus. Being able to experience our … museum-quality art collection, to come in and look at things and read a little bit about them from our labels, even just a couple of names, some dates, titles, whatever. But just to experience that, I think A, it’s good for your brain. But for another person, it might just benefit them because it’s good for the soul to come in and experience something beautiful or something that might make you think.
So another thing that’s great about this collection being free, and like I said, people wandering up, is that someone who wouldn’t be comfortable going to a museum or would feel out of place in that environment, for whatever reason, can come up here and not have that kind of pressure to already know something about art. I try to create an environment that’s very low stakes, because my personal philosophy is if the only thing you get out of a painting is “I like it” or “I don’t like it,” that’s totally valid. You don’t have to have an art history degree to learn to appreciate things and to experience art.
NBL: What do you hope people learn from visiting the art room?
AC: I think one of the ways that I really like to learn about paintings is to hear the stories, so it’s not just [about] who painted it. You know, we have a great painting by Francis Davis Millett — and whenever people ask me what’s my favorite painting, that’s my favorite, “The Black Sheep” by Francis Davis Millett — but part of it is because it has a great story of how we acquired it. So I encourage people to come in and ask me what my favorite painting is and I’ll tell you the story. Or I’ll tell a story about Bierstadt or I’ll tell a story about Bradford. And so I think being able to connect the image to the story is how those things stay in people’s heads …
When people come to visit, I always say “Welcome! Let me know if you have any questions.” And people do ask questions about things and then I’m happy to give tours and tell stories.
Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. New Bedford Cable Network’s video tour of the art collection, presented by Copeland, can be found here. The art room is open 1 to 9 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and limited hours on Fridays and Saturdays. Copeland can be reached at 508-979-1787.