Obituary: Jacquelyn Oak, 1947-2024 | Seven Days Vermont

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Obituary: Jacquelyn Oak, 1947-2024 

Curator and American folk-art scholar helped change how 19th-century folk art was examined

Published July 1, 2024 at 6:00 a.m.

click to enlarge Jackie Oak - COURTESY
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  • Jackie Oak

Jacquelyn Oak passed away on June 1, 2024. Jackie was born on October 7, 1947, in LaPorte, Ind., the daughter of Dwight David and Elizabeth Oak.

Although she grew up in Indiana, her mother’s family ties drew her to New England. After graduating from Lake Forest College in Illinois and receiving her master’s in art history at Purdue University, she began her museum career in 1972, working in research, rights and photographs at Shelburne Museum. Two years later, she became registrar. It was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with folk art and folk artists. Helping to coordinate the speakers at a graduate program series at Shelburne put her in contact with leading scholars in the field, including Wendell Garett, editor of Antiques; Jonathan Fairbanks, Museum of Fine Arts Boston; and Peter Mooz, Bowdoin College Museum. She soaked up the history of the collections from longtime employees who had worked directly with Shelburne Museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb. Before she left Shelburne, she curated her first folk art exhibition.

After four years with the Shelburne Museum, Jackie joined the staff of the Museum of Our National Heritage in Lexington, Mass., in 1976. For the next 14 years, she served as registrar, where she worked with the staff of major national and international museums, small historical societies and private collectors, while managing a demanding schedule of changing exhibitions. By the 10th anniversary of the museum in 1985, she had managed loans of more than 5,000 objects, including a major exhibition from the British Library, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address from the Library of Congress, and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation from the National Archives.

Her love of folk art never waned. In addition to her responsibilities as registrar, she coauthored an article on folk artist Noah North in Antiques in 1977. She participated in major folk-art conferences at Winterthur, Williamsburg and the Fenimore Art Museum and served as a consultant to the Whitney Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, and Genesee County Museum.

In 1981 she organized “House, Sign, and Fancy Painting” in collaboration with the Shelburne Museum and published two articles, “New Discoveries in House, Sign, and Fancy Painting” in Clarion and “American Folk Portraits in the Collection of Sybil B. And Arthur B. Kern” in Antiques. During planning for a comprehensive exhibition of Noah North in 1982, the discovery of a painting signed by M.W. Hopkins forced a reappraisal of works previously attributed to North and paved the way for an entirely new way to look at folk artists of the 19th century. Jackie brought an attention to detail, relentless research and an innovative social history approach to what became a groundbreaking study of Hopkins and North. “Face to Face: M.W. Hopkins and Noah North” opened in 1988 at the Museum of Our National Heritage, accompanied by a scholarly catalog, and traveled to the Strong Museum in Rochester, N.Y.; the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown, N.Y.; and the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City.

In 1990 Jackie returned to Vermont to establish a museum consulting firm but found it necessary instead to return to Indiana to care for her aging parents. When she returned to Vermont, she reconnected with Shelburne Museum and worked as manager of photographic rights and reproductions, while continuing to teach classes on American folk art and serving as a guide at the museum from 2007 until 2024. For the past 12 years, she served as a guest curator at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, where she initiated and curated “Artist and Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed,” the first exhibition devoted solely to this important artist, in 2012. The exhibition traveled to the American Folk Art Museum in 2013. Jackie also curated “A Perfect Likeness: Folk Art and Early Photography” for the Fenimore Art Museum in 2014. At the time of her passing, Jackie was working on “The Art of Reform,” a major exhibition on American folk artists and their involvement in social and religious reform movements.

Jackie combined her connoisseurship of folk art with a passion for local history, newspapers and documents. She loved spending time in the small villages of New England and along the Erie Canal, where her painters and their subjects lived and worked. Shelburne Museum remained a very special place for her. She continued to share her enthusiasm for the collections, working as a guide at the museum more than 50 years later.

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