American art collectors ready to study


Henry Clay Frick, J. Pierpont Morgan, Louisine, and Henry O. Havemeyer in New York; J. Paul Getty, Norton Simon, Arabella and Henry E. Huntington in Los Angeles; Andrew W. Mellon in Washington, DC; Claribel and Etta Cone in Baltimore. Great names in the art world – and just a sample of Americans whose art collections have shaped the country’s museums.

The artistic legacy of American collectors is attracting serious attention in academic circles. The back story is another matter. Biographers and journalists can revel in the messy business of how and why rich and powerful Americans spend fortunes on Rembrandt, Monet, Picasso and Rauschenberg. Art historians tend to focus on expertise and aesthetics.

It’s starting to change. Through an expanded view of art history, a new generation of scholars intrigued by the socio-economic context of collecting and the provenance of art objects are giving American collectors a new level of scrutiny and consideration. respect.

“The history of collecting is so delightfully interdisciplinary,” says Inge Reist, who directs the newly established Center for the History of Collecting in America at the Frick Collection in New York. “It opens so many doors.” The center was established in 2007, after years of planning, “to stimulate awareness and study of the formation of collections of fine and decorative arts from colonial times to the present day, while affirming the relevance of this subject for the history of art and culture”.

It’s an idea whose time has finally come, says Jonathan Brown, a professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts who teaches seminars on American collecting and played a leading role in the Frick Research Center training.

“If you go back in time to 1880, the United States of America is a small country and the first gigantic fortunes are being made,” he says. “There is a feeling among industrialists that the United States should have a high culture. Thirty to 40 years later, in 1920, they had imported a large part of European heritage.

America developed an entrepreneurial style of collecting that continues today with power brokers and patrons playing a huge role in the cultural life of their cities. Billionaire Eli Broad has funded a building bearing his name at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but has dashed hopes of his contemporary collection going there and plans to build his own museum in a yet-to-be-designated location in the Los Angeles area. . . The late Donald Fisher, who founded Gap Inc. with his wife, Doris, has struck a deal that will make his contemporary art the centerpiece of a new wing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – after a plan to erect a showcase for the collection at the Presidio was defeated by neighborhood protests.

But until recently, says Brown, “the history of collecting in the United States hadn’t even been defined as a subject, whereas in Europe it was quite advanced. The exploits of American collectors were more than equal to what had happened in the great centers of Europe, but scholars who usually studied collecting in Spain, France or England never thought of the United States as comparable example.

“Who buys what is intrinsically interesting,” he says. “This is how culture displays its values. What distinguishes American collectors is the sense of public good. The idea that the collections would not only improve the reputation of collectors, but that they would somehow fall into the public domain and provide an uplifting element to the American experience. There are a thousand and one fascinating stories that can be told.

In Los Angeles alone, there’s a lot to learn about the collectors who donated artwork to the precursor to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Exposition Park, and the museum’s supporters. Pasadena art that have shifted allegiance to the brand new Museum of Contemporary Art. when Norton Simon took charge of the Pasadena institution.

One of the flagship prototypes of the American collection was Frick himself, a man of humble origins who built up a great fortune and then left his remarkable collection to the public.

The Pittsburgh coke and steel industrialist began collecting in 1881. Upon his death in 1919, he bequeathed his New York mansion, furnishings, and collection of paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts to make it a public art gallery. His daughter, Helen Clay Frick, founded the reference library in 1920.

The art collection and library of over 250,000 books and periodicals, 80,000 auction catalogs and one million photographs – much of which is in the American collection – made the Frick an ideal location for the new research center, says Reist.

In three years of existence, it has set up scholarships and a biennial publication prize of $25,000, awarded last year to Julia Meech for her book “Frank Lloyd Wright and the Art of Japan: The Architect’s Other Passion”. An outreach program includes professional seminars, workshops and internships and public symposia.

Crowds gathered for discussions on topics such as “Holland’s Golden Age in America: Collecting the Art of Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Hals” and “The American Artist as Collector: Enlightenment in the post-war era. Six of the seven symposia held so far have been presented in New York: “Power Underestimated: American Women Art Collectors” in Venice, Italy, followed in December by “Marketmakers: Art Collectors, Dealers and Advisors in Nineteenth-Century Europe and America” at the Wallace Collection in London.

The center’s small staff – three people who collectively hold the equivalent of two full-time positions – have also developed research tools, including an online database of US collections archives, bibliographies and oral histories. . The goal, Reist says, is to streamline searches and consolidate a wealth of information and archives hosted around the world.

So far, the archive directory includes approximately 5,000 collections in 500 repositories documenting the lives and activities of 1,500 American collectors. Researchers visiting find, for example, information about New York taxi magnate Robert C. Scull and his wife, Ethel (known as ” Spike”) art voraciously in the 1960s and scandalized the art world when they cashed in at auction in 1973 – is available in interviews, articles and records at the Archives of American Art in Washington and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The life and times of Betty Parsons, a New York dealer, collector and artist dubbed by Artnews “the mother of abstract expressionism”, can be discovered in the Archives of American Art, the National Portrait Gallery Library and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture. Garden Library in Washington and the Getty Research Institute.

The Getty Research Institute, established in 1982, has a much broader scope than the Frick Center, but its Special Collections contain a growing wealth of letters, business records, and libraries from American collectors, dealers, artists, and critics. The massive archive of Joseph Duveen, the dealer known for selling the collections of impoverished Europeans to fabulously wealthy Americans, including Frick, Huntington and Mellon, is in high demand, says Marcia Reed, chief curator and head of collections development at the Getty Research Library. .

“We were interested in the history of museums and collections from the start,” says Reed. “While we were collecting, we were telling the story of the art collection itself.” With funds to purchase entire libraries, the Getty acquired vast collections of material bearing “the imprimatur of ancient collectors, connoisseurs and tastes,” she says. The treasure includes the papers of art critic/curator/collector Douglas Cooper and art historian Julius S. Held, as well as photographic archives and business records of New York dealer French & Co.

Getty’s Provenance Index, a series of collecting databases started in the 1980s, is now under the aegis of the Research Institute’s Project for the Study of Collecting and Provenance. Under the direction of Christian Huemer, the project organizes research on specific topics and supports researchers in the field by giving them access to the vast resources of other institutions. Much of the scholarly work relates to collecting in Europe, but since the late 19th century it has become impossible to separate the European art market from that of America, he says.

American collectors are also the subject of exhibitions. This is not a new development, but such broadcasts appear with increasing frequency and sometimes with a new twist.

“Robert and Ethel Scull: Portrait of a Collection,” a recent hit at New York’s Acquavella Galleries, seems to have rehabilitated the reputation of a couple once vilified as vulgar, nouveau riche social climbers. “Picasso at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” at the Met through Aug. 27, looks like a routine permanent collection exhibit, but the catalog details the ownership history of about 100 objects, mostly donated by Americans who favored the first works of the artist.

In Southern California, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art presented a major exhibition of the collection of William Randolph Hearst in 2008-2009, and an exhibition of the bronze collection of New York architect Peter Marino, at the Wallace Collection until July 25, arrives at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in October. Despite his highly refined taste for buildings and sculptures, Marino is said to dress exclusively in black leather, accessorized with dark glasses, high boots and bracelets.

The Journal of the History of Collections, a scholarly publication of Oxford University Press, also seems to be increasingly interested in who bought what in America. Last November’s special edition on “The Art Collector – Between Philanthropy and Self-Glorification,” includes articles on Frick and Isabella Stewart Gardner, who established a museum in Boston. The May issue features “Medieval Art for America: The Arrival of the J. Pierpont Morgan Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art” and “Golden Age Collecting in America’s Middle West.”

As Reist says, “There was a time when collecting was considered something almost frivolous and that is no longer the case.”

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