Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Collector as Purist

It takes a good deal of self-confidence to excel in the art world. Whether as artist, curator, critic, dealer or collector, trusting one's instincts to the point of believing in one's own superior judgement is not a rare trait among those who claw their way to the top. Not in any field actually. But in the art business, where what gets elevated/celebrated often goes on to represent a generation's values and priorities for (more or less) eternity, such confidence misplaced or misapplied can lead to embarassing legacies and handicapping stipulations that don't serve the art (or its future viewers) nearly as much as they do the ego of the stipulator. Again, this applies across the board, but as the title will have told you, I'm singling out collectors for today's tirade.

Now I've been lucky enough to view the collections of some of today's most brilliant collectors, true visionaries with knowledge far beyond my own and a breathtaking grasp of what their collections means. I've seen collections that reflect a finger on the pulse of contemporary art so acute that it's crossed my mind how some of today's biggest biennales could have benefitted by including these collectors on their curating teams. In other words, there are collectors who do indeed have superior judgement.

But like any authority, the wider a collector goes on to cast their net, the less likely it is they'll be as successful/insightful across their entire catch. And given that, the more particular they are about how their collection is accessed by the public (if it eventually is), the less likely it is they're actually serving the public as much as they think they are.

Consider Charles Lang Freer [pictured above]. In an article in today's Wall Street Journal (which upon searching I must conclude isn't online yet), Milo Beach notes how the self-made railroad magnate donated his 2,500 works of art (including the world's largest collection of work by Whistler and reportedly the US's first [or second] most important collection of Asian art [depending on whether you ask the MFA in Boston or not]) to the Smithsonian Institution with some rather stringent conditions attached [retyped by yours truly...all typos mine]:

The gift took four years of negotiations and the strong support of President Theodore Roosevelt and Alexander Graham Bell. Despite extraordinarily generous terms, the collection seemed eccentric to Washington officials of the time, and it came with restrictions that would today be unacceptable. For example, only objects owned by the gallery could be shown within its walls, and there could be no loans to other institutions. [...] By refusing to allow loans from the collection, Freer sought to ensure that the works would always be available in Washington for any interested visitor, for whose use he also assembled a major research library. As the museum world changed, however, the gallery, unable to participate in major international exhibitions, became known as a scholarly retreat. This meant that the arts of Asia had a very limited public presence within the national museum system in Washington.
The article discusses how the gallery has worked to compensate for these restrictions (building the Sackler next door has helped, as have educational programs and public presentations), but the overall impact of Freer's insistence on his own particular vision for the gallery has been to limit its usefulness as a public institution.

But here's where all this reconfirms my own opinions on the matter. Although Freer stipluated that no additions to the American section of his collection were permitted, he was indeed such an expert in Asian art that the knew his Asian collection was incomplete and agreed that important objects could be added to that section after his death. The problem with his assumption regarding the importance of his American choices, though, is neatly reflected by the central place therein of works by Thomas Wilmer Dewing and Dwight Tyron.

"Who?" you're thinking.


Now I'm a big fan of eclectic/eccentric collections (one of my favorites by a gallerist friend includes only works by anonymous artists, with every choice made based on quality alone), and of course the greatest pleasure in collecting is how it reflects one's own personal tastes. But once a collection is donated to the public, I feel certain considerations (e.g., the collector most likely can't actually see the future) should encourage collectors to be as flexible as possible with restrictions. Purism in a private collection is actually a good thing, IMO. Purism in a public collection is not as much a service as it is a self-portrait/monument. Interesting for a limited period of time, perhaps, but hardly the gift that keeps on giving as generously as it might for eternity.


Anonymous Henry said...

I can't say I'm a fan of purism in anything, but I agree that consistency is good in any art collection. It demonstrates some kind of vision other than random collecting, and it gives the viewer more to be interested in than seeing an uncoordinated collection of works.

I looked up Thomas Wilmer Dewing's images online. His paintings are really quite lovely. His works deserve to be released from their prison and hung alongside Whistler and Sargent with greater frequency. I wonder sadly whether Dewing would have been more popular today if Freer weren't so strict. In his ideological purity I think he's robbed a good painter of deserved fame. Maybe the Smithsonian should locate Freer's heirs and tell them, "take your stuff back, we don't want your conditions any more."

12/14/2006 01:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Nick said...

Point of clarification, please, Edward. In your last paragraph, when you mention your gallerist friend who only collects anonymous artists, do you mean that he only collects works whose authorship is literally unknown, or that the works are by under-known artists?

12/14/2006 05:27:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

literally unknown. He choses works from estates, etc. where it would take some detective work to find the artist. He knows 20th century art like no one else, so he seeks out those pieces of which he can't recognize anything but the's a charming, wonderful collection

12/14/2006 09:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

>>>in the art business, where what >>>>gets elevated/celebrated often >>>goes on to represent a >>>generation's values and >>>priorities for (more or less) >>>eternity

Lol, hold on your big horse. Modern + Contemporary is slightly over a century old.

Who knows what will be retained in 300 years? They might as well say "for a moment that lasted about 80 years people of the 20th Century thought Van Gogh was really good".

I've said it before and I'll said it again, but the type of art that I think rocks is not easy to collect so it would be a big mistake in my point of view to consider art that is the best collected as the best art. There is strong art beyond the art that fits beautiful mansions.

As for collector judgment, beware. Many have people decide for them. I don't think that being in power to buy art makes you a people of judgment. I think collectors buy art that already passed a few filters of judgments. Example, an artist might have been selected by a few curators in biennials before being caught by David Zwirner. That's the big filter there that really helps collector (hate it or not, some gallerist will be respected for whatever they present, even when it's really bad). Another big filter is Art Basel. Gosh, the whole event is hierarchized. Why? It's not a biennial, it's a bunch of gallerists. They all have great and bad art !!! (yes, Mary Boone, even you !)

For the rest of the article, I agree with. ;-)

In fact it's not too intelligent to concentrate your collection in one place. Big natural damage, bomb, or fire, and you're done.

Cedric Caspesyan

12/15/2006 04:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

ooopps. I didn't complete my idea about Art Basel being hierarchized. What I meant is that some collectors will only go to the official Art Basel. And then the art they buy might be filled later with an aura of importance. But that judgment value already occured with how the event itself was organized.

There is an assumption that if a gallerist holds 2 or 3 major international artists, that their catalog must be supra-important(It's really not the case. I look at gallerists' lists and they're either boring or exaggerately long (Gago and Goodman)). And Basel creates that environment that entices such feeling, that the central event must be the best, and where to expect see the most important art. Actually, the gallerists do present the art from their better artists (it's not like you're going to Basel to take risks, right? Even Chapmans were forced to change the name of their intervention by their gallerist).
But then you can see how the future important art has sort of already been decided before it's put on market.

The ..ahem..."second"..or....(ahem ahem) "beyond third world" fairs are really there to give an even chance (or...cough bargain bins for low budget newbies..).

So all I'm saying is that judgment value is entirely being pre-heated.

Cedric Caspesyan

12/15/2006 04:38:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Who knows what will be retained in 300 years?

The odds of what's been fossilized in a museum being retained in 300 years far outweighs those of what's been cleared out of an artist's studio after they've passed away, I would venture, but point taken.

So all I'm saying is that judgment value is entirely being pre-heated.

It works both directions though Cedric. Collectors determine what ends up getting reviewed or what ends up in biennials as well.

12/15/2006 08:02:00 AM  
Anonymous audrey said...

i need some help! a talented, very 'outsider" artist friend died and left me with her paintings. i'd like to find someone who can market the estate at best, or at least help to find a show for her work.
as you can see, i'm surfing, and grasping at straws. i ve had an appraisal and am knowledgeable enough about the contemporary art world to know the work should be of interest to the right collector.

1/03/2007 07:49:00 PM  

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