ALMA to Be New Home For Permanent Exhibit Of Karsh Photographs: Renovations Underway to Make Museum Ready


George Bernard Shaw

WATERTOWN, Mass. — The Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) is going to be the new home for many iconic images from one of the most renowned portrait photographers of the 20th century, Yousuf Karsh.

The photographer captured the images of some of the world’s most noted and inspiring personalities, such as Pablo Picasso, Winston Churchill, Helen Keller, Aram Khachaturian, Ernest Hemingway, Eleanor Roosevelt and Vartan Gregorian, to name a few.

Karsh, who was born in Mardin, Western Armenia, was sent by his anxious parents to Canada to escape the Armenian Genocide. He learned about photography from his uncle, George Nakash, but clearly he was more gifted than anyone had anticipated. In his lifetime, someone had truly arrived if they sat for a Karsh portrait.

Karsh and his wife, Estrellita, moved to Boston, where he died in 2002.

Recently, Estrellita Karsh, gifted the museum with an impressive collection of his portraits. Estrellita Karsh said she felt that ALMA was a fitting home for her late husband’s works and said, “Yousuf had great pride in his Armenian heritage and it would have meant so much to him knowing that representative portraits of his work are being housed at the Armenian Library and Museum of America.”

ALMA board members decided it would be the perfect time to redesign the space and layout of the first floor of the Bedoukian Gallery, before the masterpieces arrrived at their new home. Using this permanent collection as a tipping point, ALMA has been renovating its first floor since June — specifically the Bedoukian Gallery, reception area and gift and book shop.

Years of exhibitions and events had left the Bedoukian Gallery in need of renovations. Thanks to Estrellita Karsh, ALMA was able to engage Keith Crippen, head designer for the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, to lead not only the design plans for the gallery, but the Karsh Exhibition and the exhibition of ALMA’s collection. Crippen, who also had designed the 2008 Karsh exhibit at the MFA and more recently the museum’s new Art of the Americas Wing, has raised the level of professionalism in his design of the museum and has passed along his vision for ALMA to trained carpenters and technicians so they may install new features that will give the galleries a state-of-the-art appearance. In addition to the new walls, ceilings and lighting, new climate-controlled display cases have been purchased and fresh signage will line the gallery.

Additionally, the Bedoukian Gallery will feature a new soundproofed media room, with theater seating and a flat screen monitor, that will show documentary films on Karsh, as well as various films and documentaries on Armenian-related topics.

To celebrate this gift and to help raise further funds, a gala celebration will be held Friday, September 16, at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. ALMA’s executive vice president, Michele Kolligian, will be chairing this event. “Not only will we be recognizing this wonderful artist and the gift from his wife, Mrs. Estrellita Karsh, we will also be celebrating the new face of ALMA,” Kolligian said.

The weekend of art and renewal will culminate with the opening reception of the exhibition, “Karsh: Celebrating Humanity” at ALMA, on Saturday, September 17, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Gala guests, friends and supporters of ALMA are all invited to this complimentary opening and reception.

A committee has been organized by ALMA Trustee Bob Khederian to lead the fundraising efforts for the new renovations of the new gallery. A special plaque will be mounted in the Bedoukian Gallery, specifically for the donors of the new renovation fund.

“The old face of ALMA was of protecting and safeguarding objects. The image I always think of is a dragon guarding treasures in a cage, but no one can see them. There has recently been a shift to a younger generation of board members who think very differently and feel this wonderful collection deserves to be showcased in proper fashion. What’s the point in having this amazing collection if no one knows about it,” said Gary Lind- Sinanian, ALMA’s curator.

ALMA’s chairman, Haig Der Manuelian, further explained that on top of their desire to have more visitors come to ALMA from the Armenian and non-Armenian communities and to increase their membership by 100 percent, he also hopes that the increased exposure will bring awareness to Armenians who may have artifacts. Once they see ALMA for themselves and its rare exhibits, he said he hoped they would see that the museum can be the new home for them.

Alongside the Karsh exhibit, that night ALMA will showcase a sampling of their diverse collections, from religious artifacts, to textiles and instruments. One of the most prominent items displayed outside of the Karsh collection will be the Garabed Gospel Bible from Armenia, which took 11 years to make and was completed in 1207. The book was passed down in a family of priests for 39 generations before finding a home at ALMA from the last living member of the Garabedian family of Wisconsin.

Lind-Sinanian explained that once a book was blessed, it became a living being. Even during the Genocide, people would often rather die than not protect their Bible. This one in particular was viewed as a healing object, drawing Armenians from across the country to rub rags on its cover. After doing so, they would stick the rags in their own clothing in hopes of curing themselves. The Bible will be on display in one of the new climate- controlled display cases.

For more information on ALMA or reservations for the gala, call the museum, email [email protected] or visit www.almainc.org.