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Listing or Capsizing?

Hollie Davis and Andrew Richmond | June 16th, 2013

The Young Collector

We live and die by lists—mostly die, it seems—but at least we do it in an orderly fashion! Nowhere is this truer than with our annual planning of the Midwest Antiques Forum. Four years ago, when the folks at (, Hollie’s employer, said they thought the Midwest needed to do more to support a regional identity and encourage scholarship, we felt that we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help shape it as conference organizers, and the flurry of lists began.

People talk about “armchair quarterbacking,” but “armchair event planning” is just as common. As is usually the case, however, once you actually “tackle” something (or, more aptly, get tackled by it), you realize how difficult the job can be. Last year we moved the conference to Cincinnati—right into the middle of the Flying Pig Marathon. The Flying Pig is a big deal: it’s the third-largest first-time marathon in the country; it can be used to qualify for the Boston Marathon; and with the various races that accompany the marathon itself, it’s estimated that there are more than 30,000 participants. Streets are closed, bridges are restricted, and every hotel within miles of downtown is packed. (It was also Kentucky Derby weekend; we live, we learn.)

This year, the decision was made to remain in Cincinnati and to move the date to the last weekend in April. Without the Flying Pig, we decided, staying downtown would be possible and much more interesting, but finding a venue remained an uphill battle, which really means something in a city of seven hills. We ran smack into the bane of beautiful weekends­­—weddings. Honestly, weddings ruin everything; they take up all the interesting venues, all the best restaurants, and make museums impassable. We’re planning our own “wedding” here; go to City Hall, people!

We were disappointed to be told directly by one of the major Cincinnati art museums that it didn’t book any events but weddings on weekends in the spring. We understand, brides have deeper pockets. Who wants a conference where people are going to try to save money by scrimping on salad dressing when you can deal with a bride who will want the veal and the prime rib? The Downtown Hyatt it is, then (where we were told, sometime after signing the contract and after publicizing the date and location, that the hotel would be undergoing extensive renovations).

Then there is the challenge of setting a program. If planning a conference is like planning a wedding, then the slate of speakers is equivalent to the dress—the big draw, the big reveal, the whole point. We wanted the group to be as geographically diverse as possible, i.e., not too much Ohio. This challenges us each year, because it means finding speakers who might be beyond our immediate network and booking them, sometimes on the basis of their scholarship, without even a single direct recommendation. We’ve had great luck with speakers, but we didn’t need it to be Derby weekend to understand gambling. Engaging a speaker you haven’t had the opportunity to hear in person is always a risk, and a good topic and/or good material is no guarantee of a sparkling delivery. Just as they do for the wedding dress, people have high expectations for lecturers, and there are topics to balance, not just in terms of geography, but in terms of type of material, whether furniture, glass, or silver, and approach, whether object-driven or object-oriented.

This is often the point at which weddings stall out, and conferences can be just the same. Once you have the dress and the venue, it takes a special kind of dogged dedication to continue deliberating over the finer points, such as the font for the cocktail napkins and Doric or Ionic columns for the cake construction. The nuts-and-bolts planning for conferences can be the same. There are the obvious things (yes, all our speakers need hotel rooms, and, yes, we’ll want coffee in the morning). You begin to discover that it isn’t actually answering all these little questions that’s so difficult—one gets pretty good at making snap decisions about things such as red or white, chocolate or vanilla, soup or salad—but, rather, the greater challenge lies in just identifying all the questions that need to be asked. Chasing them all down and dealing with questions you didn’t expect, such as hotel renovations, is really why events are planned so far in advance.

Everyone loves gifts, and marketing an event offers the “gifts” of the event process. It’s where you find out who your friends really are. We have very generous friends in Cowan’s Auctions and Garth’s Auctions (Andrew’s employer) and in Maine Antique Digest and AntiqueWeek. We also have good friends who shared news of the conference with their friends and via social media. Our best friend for life, our “best man” if you will, is J. Karp at Main Auction Galleries in Cincinnati, who said, sure, he’d be glad to host a reception, tour everyone around the auction facility, and go to great pains on our behalf to make sure that the opening night of this event sets the tone for the whole weekend.

Two weeks out, and the lists really start cranking. We still need a panelist and to finalize the dinner menu (conference center chicken, sigh); what are we going to do with the kids? (no sitters, but no way we’re doing two nights in a hotel room with a toddler and a reflux-y infant); we really need a panelist and to assemble our own talk slide shows. Where are our panelists! (The panel discussion seemed cursed this year; it was the flower girl who bursts into tears and crawls under the nearest pew.)

In the last week, there are lists everywhere: lists on the dry-erase board on the fridge (packing/household), lists in Word documents (slide shows/talks), and lists in the flurry of e-mails going back and forth (event details). Reception is off our plates (best “best man” ever!); dinner details are finalized; Hollie’s talk is done; Andrew’s not quite; registration materials have been sent to the intrepid and industrious Jennifer Castle (formerly of Prices4Antiques and now a treasure at Cowan’s) so she can assemble and distribute them; and scholarship funds (raised through generous contributions from attendees) have been bestowed on Lea Lane, a Cowan’s intern who is heading off to the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture this summer. After much deliberation, it’s been decided that Hollie will be playing the thankless role of maid of honor—the person who rushes around all weekend in uncomfortable clothes making sure everyone else looks glowing and behaves appropriately.

It’s the day before, and Andrew gathers the projector and screen (thank you, Garth’s, for the loan!) and confirms with the hotel and caterer. The panelists are confirmed, finally (you can have chocolate ice cream and a pony!), the speakers confirmed, and the packing started.

Friday morning, it’s go time. Because we don’t have enough to do, Andrew has an early appointment with a client in Kentucky, so he’s on the road before 8 a.m. Client appointment is followed by a short lunch with Garth’s owner, Jeff Jeffers, before checking into the hotel and unloading two tons of baggage and equipment. Oh, and finishing his own talk.

Of course, the hotel lobby is a mess with renovation—at least one person is probably going to be displeased—but valet parking makes checking in trouble-free, so Andrew settles into the room to finish up his talk just before throwing on a jacket to head around the corner to Main Auctions for the opening reception, where, of course, Mr. Karp has put out a heck of a spread, and it seems that all our registrants have shown up! It’s nice to meet new folks and visit with our growing core group of regulars, all of whom seem to have good things to say about the reception and the optional tour at the Taft Museum, which included a tour of its exhibition, Local Exposures: Cincinnati Daguerreotypes, with Wes Cowan. Kudos to Cincinnati’s showmen auctioneers! Andrew wraps up the evening at the Netherland Hotel, a Cincinnati (and national) landmark with a fabulous Art Deco dining room and bar.

Hollie, meanwhile, entertaining thoughts of heavy drinking herself, is at home in the less glamorous role of maid of honor. Children must be bathed and put to bed, up early for breakfast for Nora while Nat nurses, everyone into car seats (if people want to start giving parenting licenses, right after “Kind, considerate human being,” should be the requirement, “Engineering degree”), and we’re off!

Andrew’s off too—breakfast at Starbucks, then meeting room setup, where there are no technology problems, but the room is freezing. Forty-eight hours’ work from the Hyatt’s engineers will not result in any marked improvement. Our small (but larger than last year) and cold (but enthusiastic) crowd is ready! The slate, in 150 words or less: Bob Genheimer of the Cincinnati Museum Center uses archaeology to discuss Cincinnati’s yellowware potteries; Christopher Busta-Peck, a Cleveland children’s librarian, offers a preview of Early Visions of Ohio, a Decorative Arts Center of Ohio exhibition he’s curating for 2015; Susan Haake, curator of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois, talks about the pressures of curating the home of a national icon; Andrew talks about the decorative arts inspired by the War of 1812 and the Civil War; Charles Sable, curator of decorative arts at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, shares the stories of two midwestern homes now in Greenfield Village, the Firestone farmhouse and the Wright family home; and Tom Spittler wraps up the day with a discussion of the southwest Ohio clock industry and Luman Watson and the Read brothers.

Meanwhile, Hollie has arrived in town with the circus. Two hours or so to Cincinnati, a nice visit with great-great-aunt Betty and lunch, then back into the seats and downtown while there’s a break in the conference so Andrew can help usher us all in and up to the 22nd floor. (We love valet parking.) Nora prowls around the room, watching construction from the window and keeping up a constant patter of chitchat about Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Nat nurses and nurses, so he’ll be all tanked up to make it through the evening, while Andrew goes back downstairs for the last talk. Hollie reviews her notes, gets dressed, feeds Nat one more time, and then hands him off to Andrew, who promptly puts him in the bathtub to sleep in peace while he and Nora disassemble the hotel room and make blanket forts between the beds. Hollie heads downstairs to give her talk on the marketplace, while competing with a wedding DJ in the adjacent room. (More than one somebody is definitely going to have something to say about that, Hollie included.)

Afterward, Hollie prevails on Shane Hall and Derrik Wilson, two of Garth’s finest, to lug all the equipment off for the evening, dashes back upstairs to nurse Nat while Nora has a quick bath and gets into her jammies, and then it’s into the seats one last time and heading north. A sleepy Nora allows herself to be carried all the way up to bed, Nat has a final drink for the day and tucks in for the night peacefully, and Hollie collapses in bed at 1:30, 18 hours after leaving home.

Andrew is not out of the woods yet. Sunday begins with a call from Garth’s president, Amelia Jeffers, who has to abdicate as a panelist after a family emergency, but it’s Shane Hall, Garth’s newest specialist, to the rescue! But the Curse of the Panel will claim one more victim, Jon Jenkins’s car’s transmission. Luckily, his work at Jenkins Management has equipped him to manage crises and taught him when to call his dad, who kindly hustled over to get him to Cincinnati on time.

While all this is swirling behind the scenes, Daniel Ackermann, associate curator at MESDA, is giving a terrific talk about using technology in decorative arts research, illustrated with examples of MESDA research where Google, Ancestry, and other on-line resources played key roles in filling out the stories.

Finally, the panel! The building did not collapse, and no one died (although several people may have suffered mild hypothermia), and what started out as a discussion of repurposing and upcycling evolved into a discussion of getting younger folks into the market. There were many good observations and opinions, several of which will likely appear in these pages in the coming months.

So, there you have it—another great conference and another well-documented example of why we need a full mental workup and a couple of weeks somewhere warm and quiet. We should make a list of possible places. 

We welcome ideas, tips, criticisms, and questions regarding “The Young Collector.” Andrew and Hollie may be reached by e-mail <>, on Facebook (, via their blog (, or by writing The Young Collector, c/o Maine Antique Digest, PO Box 1429, Waldoboro, ME 04572.

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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