The mid-20th-century beer advertising art that goes on display Saturday in Tumwater is a rarity.
“This is probably one of the most amazing and finest collections of original advertising artwork I’ve ever tripped across,” said Art Chantry, guest curator for “It’s the Art,” a show of paintings created in the 1930s through the 1950s for Olympia Beer billboards and posters.
The show’s 57 pieces are part of a collection of more than 400 works that had long gone unexamined in the basement of the Schmidt House, where they’d been moved when workers were cleaning out the brewery.
“They’ve been in the collection for quite a few years,” said Karen Johnson, curator for the Olympia Tumwater Foundation, which operates the Schmidt House. “Last year, we finally looked at them and realized that we had a treasure.
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“They give us a glimpse into the past,” she added, “and these glimpses were not meant to survive.”
Nearly all of the paintings in the show were made to be copied onto billboards, a process that was done by hand well into the 1940s. They weren’t treated well and often went unsigned.
“On the back of them, you can see all kinds of paint fingerprints,” Chantry, of Tacoma, said in a Monday phone interview. “The sign painters would hold the artwork in one hand and a paintbrush in the other.”
Such pieces typically were destined for the trash, he said. “This is all work that wasn’t considered of any value when it was made. It wasn’t fine art, and it wasn’t considered worthy of saving or documenting.”
Both he and Johnson are thrilled that someone with the brewery saved them, creating a record of how advertising — and society — evolved from the end of Prohibition through to the 1970s or ’80s.
Pieces from the end of Prohibition through the 1950s are particularly in demand these days.
Advertising art from that era is sought after by collectors and has been the subject of several books, said Chantry, a nationally known poster artist and art historian. He expects enthusiasts from Seattle and Tacoma to come down for the show, open through Dec. 9.
On Nov. 16, Chantry will give a talk about the collection. It’s free, but those interested should call right away to reserve seats. “We’re getting close to being full for that,” Johnson said in a phone interview last week.
If the exhibit is a success, Johnson said, the foundation has plenty of pieces from the collection to mount another show.
That seems likely, at least if Chantry’s excitement about the collection is any indication.
“It’s almost like a Christmas gift that Santa left,” he said.
‘It’s the Art’
What: The Olympia Tumwater Foundation opens an exhibition of art created to advertise Olympia Beer in the 1930s through 1950s.
When: Saturday through Dec. 9. Hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, except Thanksgiving when the Schmidt House is closed. For groups, other times are available by appointment.
Where: The Schmidt House, 330 Schmidt Place SW, Tumwater
Admission: Free, with donations welcome
More information: 360-890-2299, olytumfoundation.org
Talk: Curator Art Chantry will give a free talk about the show at noon Nov. 16. Reservations are required. Call 360-890-2299, or email email@example.com