Stephen Blackwelder’s professional experiences in the fine and ethnographic arts derive from his own collecting interests and a fortunate series of “day jobs” of the sort that support many working musicians, artists, writers, etc. In his current position as director of inventory and research with Primitive, Inc. in Chicago, he supervises tracking and documentation of a nearly 20,000 item inventory of ethnographic/tribal arts and furnishings. In addition to his research and writing duties, he assists with buying and has curatorial assignments for several upcoming exhibitions. Recently he developed a schedule of “in-house” charity auctions for which his responsibilities include selection of objects, research, lotting and cataloging, installation and serving as resident auctioneer.
Formerly the director of Minasian Textile Arts, Stephen managed a tribal and ethnographic textile gallery which he developed for Minasian Rug Company of Evanston, IL. In addition to his curatorial and installation duties for semiannual textile exhibitions, he assisted the owners with inventory and customer services, as well as website and promotional writing. His most recent exhibition, “Island Magic – Court and Tribal Textiles from Indonesia” was favorably reviewed in Hali, the celebrated international magazine of Oriental rugs and textile arts. Blackwelder curated “Silk Road Discoveries” to open the company’s Textile Arts division in 2007 and has since collaborated with Joseph W. Fell in presenting exhibitions of Kashmiri Shawls (2007) and Peasant & Nomad Bag Faces (2008).
Like many “arts and humanities” students, Stephen found that art and theater were natural accompaniments to his study of music. High school acting roles and art classes paved the way for part-time work in technical theatre during the college years. After landing his first conducting position with a summer opera company in Baltimore, he also apprenticed to a veteran antique and art collector there who showed him what could be found at yard sales of the mid 1970s. Quickly he developed an interest in original prints and drawings and he brought his more studious “eye” to Chicago when he arrived for graduate study at Northwestern University in 1978. He augmented his music curriculum with more advanced art appreciation classes and frequent visits to Chicago’s art galleries, The Art Institute and the annual Art & Antique expositions at Navy Pier.
To supplement his musical work, Blackwelder landed a position at Neville-Sargent Gallery, whose proprietors loyally employed him over a period of 12 years as a framer and specialist in works on paper. While there, he curated his first invitational exhibition of fine prints (1986) from both established and emerging American printmakers. In subsequent years Stephen assisted Richard Reed Armstrong and Thomas French Fine Art in their booths during Chicago’s art exhibition season. Two years as of cataloging fine and ethnographic art at Susanin’s Auctions brought him full circle as he learned about secondary markets and the resale value of art at auction. This included a thorough grounding in research and cataloging of decorative arts as an assistant to specialist Roberta Kramer and also a second set of “podium skills” with auctioneer Sean Susanin. At the firm, he and Kramer were regular contributors to a monthly column published by Art & Antiques magazine.
Knowing that his life as a classical musician and academic would likely yield modest financial rewards, Blackwelder has been motivated to explore undervalued areas in both the fine and ethnographic arts. His contacts with gallerists and private dealers across the globe have also informed his collecting pursuits. Travel to central Europe solidified his interest in both the art and music of Czech culture, particularly the skilled and expressive printmakers of the 1970s and 80s. Ethnographic textiles, including tribal Oriental rugs and trappings, pre-Columbian textile fragments and African material from the Yoruba and Kuba peoples offered a wide range of choices. Recent excavations for the Three Gorges project in China also presented a rare opportunity to add authentic pieces from the Han and Tang dynasties as well as 20th century Miao/Hmong textiles and artifacts.