Catalina Island Museum Interviews Curator of Its Bettie Page Exhibition
Catalina Island Museum
Iconic 1950s pinup model, Bettie Page, is the subject of the special exhibition, Bettie Page Uncovered: The Unknown Photographs of Bunny Yeager currently on view at the Catalina Island Museum. Helmut Schuster, the curator of the exhibition was recently in Avalon for a Gallery Talk held at the museum. In 2010 Schuster discovered Yeager living in Miami, attempting to supplement her retirement income by selling her photographs of Bettie Page online. He worked with Yeager to organize a major retrospective of her work and uncovered a number of photographs never seen before, many of which are in the Catalina Island Museum’s exhibition.
The Catalina Island Museum sat down with Schuster to discuss his background, Bunny Yeager, and her historic collaboration with Bettie Page. The following is an excerpt from that conversation.
How long have you owned an art gallery?
I grew up in a family of art collectors. As a child, my father would take me to art fairs on the weekend. I went to school to be an art professor. I taught for a while but owning a gallery was always in the back of my mind. In 1989 my wife, Claudia, and I opened a small gallery outside Frankfurt. There have been a few different galleries since then. Currently we have Galerie Schuster in Berlin and Miami.
What inspired you to find Bunny Yeager?
It was actually by accident. During a trip to Miami I saw an ad Bunny Yeager had placed in the paper selling her photographs. Out of curiosity I thought I would check it out. I went to her house and found this 80-year-old woman who had thirty years worth of negatives in a closet. I liked what I saw as I thumbed through the negatives. There were thousands of photographs of models, including Bettie Page and that famous image of Ursula Andress from the first James Bond movie. The images in the Bettie Page Uncovered exhibition are just a small part of the collection. She had not taken very good care of the negatives and it was clear to me that I had to do something.
You ended up becoming friends with Bunny Yeager, correct?
Yes. We were close friends. I think I was the only one she really trusted. The art world is not an easy system. It was an especially hard learning process for a woman of her age. I did what I could to keep her safe and advise her on working with galleries.
Do you think Bunny Yeager and/or Bettie Page realized how groundbreaking their work was at the time?
Yes and no. They were not political activists by any means, but they definitely lived a more artistic lifestyle. They were comfortable being nude and taking nude photographs. They had African American friends at a time when that was taboo. Bunny was quite good friends with Sammy Davis Jr. Her collection includes various photographs of her with Davis Jr. on the beach.
What would you like to say about the selection of photographs exhibited in this exhibition?
After spending some time on the island for the last couple of days, I think the exhibition is a perfect fit for Catalina Island. The photographs of Bettie could have easily been taken here. Looking at the history of the island and all of the actors that came over from Hollywood during the 1950s, I think Bettie Page would have been right here with them. Of course she wasn’t, but she certainly could have been. It is completely fitting to the atmosphere of this island.
Bettie Page Uncovered: The Unknown Photographs of Bunny Yeager is on view in the John and Hasmik Mgrdichian Gallery at the Catalina Island Museum through October 16, 2016.
The Catalina Island Museum is Avalon’s sole institution devoted to art, culture and history. Open seven days a week from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, the new Ada Blanche Wrigley Schreiner Building is located in the heart of Avalon at 217 Metropole Avenue. For more information, the museum may be reached by phone at 310-510-2414 or at its website: CatalinaMuseum.org.