Bar art – not necessarily a contradiction of terms

"A Friend in Need," painted by Cassius Coolidge in the early 1900s, has adorned bars from coast to coast for decades. — Photo courtesy of MV Museum

Bonnie Stacy knows the interior of bars very well.

And, though that would generally not be the most flattering thing to say about someone, in the case of Ms. Stacy, chief curator for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, it’s purely a testament to her professional interest in a somewhat offbeat subject.

Tonight, March 21, Ms. Stacy will give a talk at the museum titled, “Bar Art: Not Just Dogs Playing Poker.” Through a series of illustrative slides, the curator will explore what she refers to as “the masculine fantasy world of saloon decor” as viewed through the ages.

Dominating the genre, according to Ms. Stacy, are naked women, sports stars, booze and tobacco advertising, politics, and gambling. While her research has uncovered these themes recurring over the centuries (her selection begins with examples from the 1500s) she notes that not much has changed in modern times, “With the exception of the naked women, we still have those traditional bar decoration themes.”

Ms. Stacy took the curator position at the M.V. Museum three years ago. Prior to that she served as the curator of collections and exhibitions for the the Historical Bethlehem Partnership, a group that oversees several different museums and historical sites in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It was during her time there that the world of bar art captured her attention. While curating an exhibit on beer in Bethlehem for the historic former home of a renowned brewer, she stumbled onto the subject of her upcoming talk.

“As a result of doing my research for that exhibition I started looking at what taverns and bars would have looked like and I came to a conclusion that there’s a certain theme to them,” she says. “I went beyond the narrowly focused exhibition at the Goundie House and started doing this research about bars and taverns all over the place. There were certain themes that kept popping up.”

The subject had obvious appeal to Ms. Stacy, who holds an undergraduate degree in art history and American studies from Smith College and a masters in decorative arts from Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

Ms. Stacy was attracted to the recurrent themes in décor that she discovered while looking at old photos and paintings of taverns and bars. “I thought it would just be fun,” she says. “I’ve already done the work and just because it was so much fun, I thought it would be nice to share with another audience.”

Ms. Stacy will introduce her subject with some examples from antiquity – Pompeian wall paintings that depict gambling – and continue on to contemporary decorations including brewery and distillery advertising and neon signs.

“Some saloons were owned or sponsored by breweries, and there would be advertising all over,” she says. “I’ve got some good examples of that.” The selection will encompass work from the 1500s to the present day and will traverse the globe from English pubs to German beer halls to a carving done by a local artist that at one time featured prominently in an Edgartown bar

And, of course, as the title of the talk implies, there will be slides of the poker-playing canines. The series of paintings was actually commissioned by a cigar company at the turn of the 20th century and the images have since turned up in bars and homes throughout the U.S.

Ms. Stacy gave a number of talks at her previous position in Pennsylvania and plans to share her diverse knowledge here. Two years ago she gave a presentation on textiles from the M.V. Museum’s collection. At a recent event at the Harbor View Hotel, she gave a short slide show talk on scarabs, a natural topic for the confessed Egyptophile whose master’s thesis was on the influences of ancient Egypt on American furniture.

Obviously Ms. Stacy’s interests cover a wide range of ground. She brings a fresh approach to the local museum’s collection. “I think my predecessor did wonderful work. She had an archeological background,” says Ms. Stacy. “My background is in art and decorative art so I bring a different focus.

“I think it’s important to have people with experience and understanding in different areas. Each one leaves their mark. The researchers who do work here all add to the knowledge of Martha’s Vineyard from many perspectives. I’m hoping that the work I do will add to that.”

Ms. Stacy notes that the museum is currently working on adding to its collection of contemporary history. She gives the filming of “Jaws” as an example.

“I think one of the pleasures of my job is the fact that every place has a wide variety of interests and people who are making history and different subjects,” she says. “We have a changing exhibit schedule that allows us to explore facets of the Island’s culture that may not be obvious at first glance.”

Lecture: Bar Art: Not Just Dogs Playing Poker with Bonnie Stacy, Thursday, March 21, 5:30 to 7 pm, M.V. Museum Library, Edgartown. $12; $8 for members. For more information, call 508-627-4441 or visit