In 1976, as guest curator for the Albany Institute of History and Art’s bicentennial exhibit, Caroline Welsh undertook a survey of 200-year-old artwork found in private collections from ten counties around that city. Her tools for documenting, one by one, more than 1,000 pieces of art were index cards and a Polaroid camera.
The tools have changed, thanks to digital technology, but the process and care is the same in the work Welsh has done over the past 49 years curating, researching, writing, cataloging, and directing in museums. And in that time, she has become an expert in American art and Adirondack arts and artists inspired by this unique, wild landscape.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when she was the Adirondack Museum’s chief curator, Welsh assessed all of the paintings, prints and drawings in the museum collection, which holds the most comprehensive collection of art depicting the Adirondacks, and then led a project to build a storage and study center to house it. Among those 600 paintings, 2,000 drawings and sketches, 1,200 prints, and twenty-five sculptures are the work of Winslow Homer, Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, Levi Wells Prentice, Rockwell Kent and Harold Weston.
Today, Welsh travels from her Tupper Lake home through the park and beyond giving talks, assessing collections and curating exhibits featuring Adirondack artwork, history and artists.
The Adirondacks benefit from the experience she brings—years of training at the Smithsonian Institution and her scholarship as an art historian, says Stephen Horne, a local painter, who has worked with Welsh on local exhibits and served with her on regional boards, including the Lake Placid Winter Olympic Museum.
“There are lots of folks who are fans of art but she brings this body of knowledge that makes these institutions she touches up their game a little bit,” he says.
On top of that, people can count on Welsh as a supporter and cheerleader, he says. She shows up at openings and, keeping up with the technology of the day, gets the word out by sharing posts on social media.
“She has the expertise and enthusiasm and belief that art is worthy of all that energy,” Horne adds.
In remarks last year when she received the St. Lawrence University North Country Citation for her contributions to the region as a leader, professional and volunteer to enhance appreciation for our artistic and cultural heritage, Welsh talked about the transformative role arts and culture play in “promoting social and economic goals through community regeneration, attracting tourists, developing talent and innovation, improving health and well-being and contributing to the delivery of public services.”
And, she says, “The arts are alive and well in the Adirondacks. I’m very excited about that.”
Welsh retired in 2012 from the Adirondack Museum (now the Adirondack Experience), but remains “busy enough” as an art and museum consultant that you can find her exhibits regularly throughout the region and Upstate New York. She still has time to travel and enjoy the outdoor life the Adirondacks provides, including hiking, swimming, skiing, rowing, and snowshoeing.
“I like the woods all year long,” she says.
Like her home and work, her travel also focuses on the natural and cultural, with trips to Iceland, New Zealand, Australia, the Czech Republic, Wales, Peru, Costa Rica, Turkey, Italy, and Croatia.
Welsh and her husband, Peter, first moved to the Adirondacks in 1986 after they were hired to do the third iteration of the logging exhibit at the Adirondack Museum. He was no stranger to the Park. He spent childhood summers on Fourth Lake and was a counselor and camper at Adirondack Woodcraft Camp.
As for Caroline, who grew up in Connecticut and vacationed at Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, “It didn’t take long to convert from the seashore to the Adirondacks,” she says. “I first saw the Adirondacks in the early 1970s and fell in love with its landscape of woods, waters and mountains.”
It took them three years to complete Work in the Woods: Logging in the Adirondacks. Afterward, in 1988, Caroline was hired as associate curator of Art for the museum and began the study, interpretation and care of the museum’s art collection. Before the Adirondack Museum, she held positions at the Smithsonian Institution, the New York State Historical Association, and the Albany Institute of History and Art. She also has served on boards and committees throughout the region, including the Lake Placid Winter Olympic Museum, the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, the Society for the Preservation of American Modernists, The Exhibition Alliance, the Hale Historical Research Center, the Trudeau Institute, and the Hamilton College Committee for the Visual Arts.
She did three major assessments, first of paintings, then prints, then drawings, building on the research on Adirondack artists Peggy O’Brien had done for the museum. In the late 1990s, they were able to identify 1,300 contemporary names.
“It deepened my knowledge of the importance of the depiction of Adirondack Wilderness and how it contributed to the history of American art,” Welsh says.