It’s somehow appropriate that Tom Denenberg’s final exhibition as chief curator at the Portland Museum of Art focuses on the design and genius of the Shaker community.

Denenberg, who is leaving Portland to become director of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, has always favored exhibitions that explore the decorative arts. With degrees in American and New England studies, he is uniquely qualified to speak on the topic.

So he was in his element Wednesday afternoon as the museum staff unpacked crate after crate of furniture, printed works, tools, textiles and other objects that are part of the new Shaker show. “Gather Up the Fragments: The Andrews Shaker Collection” opens Thursday and continues through Feb. 5 at the museum.

Every few years, there seems to be a wave of interest in Shaker lifestyle and design. This exhibition frames that discussion by laying out some 200 objects collected from the 1920s through the 1960s, primarily from Shaker communities in New England and New York.

A traveling show, “Gather Up the Fragments” is organized by the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass. It takes its name from Edward and Faith Andrews, husband-and-wife collectors who amassed the most comprehensive collection of Shaker material ever assembled.

The collection became their passion after a chance visit to a Shaker kitchen in 1923. For the next 40 years, they actively collected Shaker objects. Their commitment spawned widespread interest in Shaker studies, and led to the publication of many seminar Shaker texts.

The Andrews collection is the measuring stick by which we gauge our understanding of everything Shaker.

As he showed off a delicate candle table just removed from a crate, Denenberg explained that the utilitarian appeal of the Shaker design aesthetic has kept it current and popular. Other design trends and fads come and go, he said, but Shaker design remains consistent, clean and eminently practical. The design centers on creating simplicity and order in a domestic setting.

“This is the candle stand that everyone else bases their design on,” he said. “The inherent spirituality and simplicity of this design makes it important for every generation to pause and question your values.”

The show makes sense in Maine on many levels. We have the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community just north of Portland. And while this show only has one object from Maine, a representative from Sabbathday Lake will visit the museum in November to offer input and insight.

It’s also true that the craft of furniture making is deeply rooted in Maine. “Gather Up the Fragments” should appeal to a much wider audience than just the art crowd.

“Every third resident of Maine seems to be a furniture maker,” Denenberg said. “We think this show will appeal to woodworkers, and we also have a lot of textile artists in town. It will appeal to them as well, and to a range of other people.”

Denenberg has spent almost six years in Portland. In addition to serving as chief curator, he filled in as acting director after the departure of former director Daniel E. O’Leary.

The move to Vermont did not come without moments of deep consternation. During their time here, Denenberg and his wife have begun a family and put down roots. They love their house, their neighborhood and their city.

And Denenberg, whose last day was Friday, loved his job.

Few other museums offer what Portland gave him: A catbird seat to American art history.

“It’s a crazy opportunity to claim such a big swath of American art history,” he said. “But this museum can do it. We have a great sense of our abilities and capabilities, we have a great staff and we are able to keep doing sparkling shows. This has been a great place to work.”

So why is he leaving? Shelburne offers a promotion, for one. He will direct the museum. But more to the point, the Shelburne Museum has a strong niche in art and design.

And as this Shaker show reminds us, design is Denenberg’s specialty. 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be reached at 791-6457 or:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes