Society for the History of Collecting

College Art Association, Chicago, February 2020


Thursday, February 13: 4:00-5:30pm

The Institution as Collector

Both the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrate their 150th anniversaries in 2020. Yet these two institutions began in very different ways. While the Boston museum was an outgrowth of that city’s Athenaeum, with an already extensive collection of works of art, New York’s museum was founded without a single object in its collection. These examples are a starting point to consider the ways in which museums act as collectors. The history of collecting is more usually positioned as driven by individuals or families. While house museums have garnered attention as expressions of their founders’ biographies and interests, municipal or encyclopedic museums have not in a comprehensive way. The papers in our session explore the means by which a museum’s identity is formed and expanded through its collections, as well as how that identity is understood and responded to by donors and dealers alike.

“Privatizations” or Public-Private Partnerships? Institutional Concepts of Art Collecting in the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen

Dorothée Wimmer, TU Berlin

Due to the fragmentation of the German Confederation, from which the German Empire emerged in 1871, independent bourgeois collections arose alongside the art museums in the residences of the monarchical states. These were organized and financed by bourgeois art associations and foundations, initially without the financial participation of the cities and city-states.

On 14 November 1823, the Bremen senator Hieronymus Klugkist invited thirty-four art-lovers to launch the Kunstverein as one of the first art associations in Germany. It was an important concern of the association to prevent the dissipation by sale of existing private collections of significance to the city state. In 1849, the Kunsthalle Bremen was built, the first building in Germany ever to be owned by an art association.

Approximately 140 years later, the foundation “Neues Museum Weserburg Bremen” was established by resolution of the citizenship of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen City Community. This museum of contemporary art was a novelty in Europe: it was founded without a single object in its collection. Instead, the concept of a collector’s museum was implemented, in which the permanent exhibition was equipped exclusively with exhibits from private lenders in Germany and abroad.

Are the Kunsthalle Bremen and the newly founded Museum of Modern Art collective private collections or public-private partnerships? The lecture will focus on the similarities and differences between the concepts behind collecting and their respective processes – the acquisition, installation, and deaccession policies – of these two art institutions in the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen.

Knoedler and the shaping of the American art museum in the Gilded Age

Anne Helmreich, Getty Research Institute

Museums in the United States, predominantly private institutions, are rooted in a history of philanthropy which directly shaped institutional collecting practices. Thus private patrons, and their donated collections, have come to play prominent roles in the histories of these institutions. Less visible, but arguably equally significant, are art dealers, who often shaped the collections given to these institutions and played a critical role as brokers between collectors and museums as well as between museums and connoisseurs and other experts. This paper proposes to examine the role of the dealer in institutional collecting practices through the archive of the dealer Knoedler and Co., focusing on their activities at the turn of the last century, decades that witnessed the growth and consolidation of many American museums. While Knoedler’s competitor, Duveen, made visible his mark on museums by funding the galleries that bear his name at Tate Britain, the Knoedler firm never sought the spotlight in an equivalent fashion. But their activities left a pronounced and recoverable trace in the provenance records of major institutions such as The Frick Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Clark Art Institute, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Walters Art Museum, as well as in their own archive. Using the firm’s correspondence in tandem with the stockbooks, which have been translated into fielded data in the Getty Provenance Index that allows for longitudinal and aggregated analysis, this paper will reveal the firm’s highly significant role in shaping American museum collections.

How Contemporary is the Modern?

Lynn Rother, Museum of Modern Art

Founded in 1929, The Museum of Modern Art set out as the first institution in New York to promote the art of the present. The term “modern” as chosen by MoMA for its very name was not describing pre-contemporary art but rather art of the present that suggested “the progressive, original and challenging rather than the safe and academic,” as its founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. clarified. The decision to start with the 1880s was a consequence of practical and intellectual considerations: when MoMA opened its doors, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art had already begun to collect the art of the nineteenth century, including Impressionism. MoMA’s mission to collect the art of living artists was laid out in an agreement of 1947 with the Met, the institution designated to be the recipient of works older than fifty years, only to be annulled by MoMA’s board in 1953. As a result, MoMA’s current collection spans from 1880 to the present. Today, MoMA is perceived as the high temple of modernism. But even its modern masterpieces such as Cézanne’s The Bather, Van Gogh’s The Starry Night or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon were acquired within decades of its creation. So, how contemporary does MoMA collect? This paper will shed light on MoMA’s acquisition practice over its 90 years of existence. By analyzing the collection data comprehensively for the first time, the paper will give an overview of MoMA as a collecting institution and zoom into collecting phases, practices, and patterns.

Past Cosmopolitanism, Possible Future Détente

Samine Tabatabaei, Brown University

This presentation sheds light on the effects of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art’s creation in 1970, arguably the first museum of contemporary art in South Asia and the Middle East. The Museum’s construction and collection were funded by the national oil company and supported by the royal family. I argue that the international collection, comprised of late modern and contemporary artworks, helped to overcome the biases against contemporary art and to establish the perception of a cosmopolitan cultural center in Iran prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.



Thursday, February 13, 6:00-7:30pm

The Collector and the Institution

As a continuation of the afternoon’s “The Institution as Collector,” this session presents four case studies that explore the ways in which a bequest, donation, or loan enters a pre-existing institution, its impact on that museum, and the museum’s impact on that collection. Examples are drawn from the early twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from the United States, Europe, and Israel. Legal protections, the role of trustees, and the works of art themselves shed light on the functions and responsibilities of the institution.

The Friedsam Bequest and the consequences of collecting “mania”

Margaret Iaconno, The Frick Collection

The American collector and business magnate Colonel Michael H. Friedsam (1864-1931) described collecting as both “a mania” and “a disease.” His passion for art resulted in an enormous assemblage of works that ranged greatly in terms of chronology, geography, and media and included paintings, sculpture, furniture, tapestries, and a vast array of other decorative art. Friedsam’s collection, of admittedly disparate quality, has been historically overshadowed by that of his cousin Benjamin Altman (1840-1913), one of America’s greatest collectors; thus it has been largely overlooked by scholars. A native New Yorker and prominent philanthropist, Friedsam decreed in his will that his collection should reside—intact—at the Metropolitan of Art or another New York institution. While seemingly magnanimous in its intention, Friedsam’s stipulations proved quite problematic for the two institutions to which his collection was ultimately bequeathed. After much debate between the Friedsam Trustees and staff members at the Metropolitan, that institution was permitted first choice of objects from Friedsam’s holdings. The majority of works declined by the Met were later given to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. This talk will use the Friedsam Bequest as a case study to explore the thorny issues arising from a private collection’s dispersal to public institutions, especially in regard to evolving institutional acquisition policies. Related questions of curator selection, object quality, donor installation and display mandates, attitudes toward attributional changes, and deaccession restrictions will also be considered.

A donor’s intent vs. reality: John G. Johnson, his collection, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Esmée M. Quodbach, Center for the History of Collecting, The Frick Collection

John Graver Johnson (1841-1917), a leading Philadelphia lawyer, amassed one of the largest and most varied picture collections of America’s Gilded Age. He kept it at his townhouse, which did not have a formal gallery: Johnson’s paintings were scattered all over its interiors. During his life, the residence was not open to the public, but Johnson received many visitors. Despite its limited accessibility, the collection gained an excellent reputation.

In his will of 1912, Johnson bequeathed his collection—nearly 1,300 paintings plus about 200 other works of art—to the City of Philadelphia. Three years later, he bought the residence adjacent to his own for the purpose of displaying his art. In a codicil to his will, Johnson asked that his collection be maintained in its new location. About this time, he reportedly declared that he would not put his art “in any old temple with a row of columns in front of it.”

After Johnson’s death, in 1917, his collection remained closed for six years: It was only in 1923 that the City opened the Johnson house museum to the public. After the house was declared unsafe in 1933, the John G. Johnson Collection was transferred to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it was displayed in a separate suite of galleries. More than sixty years later, in 1995, Johnson’s paintings were integrated with the PMA’s own permanent holdings. This paper explores Johnson’s intentions for his collection, and its subsequent history at the PMA, under whose stewardship it now remains.

Collecting and Social Responsibility

Ronit Milano, Ben Gurion University of the Negev

The proposed paper aims to analyze the unique function of corporate collections mastered by the owner-collector. I am referring here to collections which are formed by wealthy individuals, but which are financially based on the capital of the collector’s company. My talk will focus on an Israeli case: the Doron Sebbag – ORS collection. The ORS collection was formed in the 1980s by the company owner – Israeli millionaire Doron Sebbag. ORS is one of the largest human-resources companies in Israel, notorious for the exploitation of its workers. Throughout the years, Sebbag gained resonance in the local art milieu, thanks to the ORS collection, and became a board member in the second-largest public art museum in Israel – The Tel Aviv Museum.

By concentrating on two large exhibitions (in 2000 and 2008) at the Tel Aviv Museum, which were drawn from the ORS collection, this paper will consider the question of social responsibility with regard to art collections and collecting. I will show that the particular case of the ORS collection demonstrates a model that reconciles between the personal sense of social commitment on behalf of the collector, and between a cold approach that characterizes the company, especially under liberal economies. Ultimately, I will argue, the museum becomes instrumental in the hybridization of the corporate and the individual collector, which embodies a dualistic agenda of social responsibility, complying at the same time to neoliberal codes, and to the traditional paternal role of the collector.

Ecologies of Institutional Collecting: Private Donors, Public Collections, Curatorial Challenges and Visitor Response. Ai Weiwei’s Teahouse in Berlin’s Museum of Asian Art

Annette Loeseke, New York University (Berlin)

One of the most prominent acquisitions by Berlin’s Museum of Asian Art in recent years is contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s Teahouse (2009). The presentation of the contemporary artwork next to historical pieces aims to “shed new light” on the museum’s collection, “provoking a wide range of associations,” according to the museum’s website. While the information in the gallery explores cultural-historical relations between contemporary and historical pieces, a journal article by the museum’s director comments on the acquisition history of the newly-acquired piece. The Teahouse was given to the museum as a permanent loan by private collectors, Si and Dieter Rosenkranz, who offered the director a choice between two artworks by Ai Weiwei, commissioned by Berlin- and Beijing-based Alexander Ochs Galleries. In his article, the museum’s director reflects on the relationship between the museum and the collectors, his own selection criteria, and the difficult decision-making process. This paper takes the acquisition of Ai Weiwei’s Teahouse as a case study to shed light on the multilayered practice of institutional collecting. By exploring the circumstances of the acquisition, the roles of various stakeholders involved in the acquisition, the director’s selection criteria, the curatorial, conceptual challenges to integrate the loaned artwork into the permanent exhibition and the multifaceted response by visitors, I seek to identify blind spots in the museum’s presentation of their collection and discuss the potentially conflicting implications of such a collecting practice for the institutional and public processes of (re-)interpreting and “making sense” of collections.


Friday February 14, 12.30 -1.30PM

Meeting room 4K

Business Session

Please join the Society for a panel discussion with Adriana Turpin, Anne Helmreich, Esme Quodbach and Sandra van Ginhoven on research opportunities for scholars on collecting and the art market.

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