Collections expose the intersections of various disciplines, subjects, cultures, and time periods. Studying the history of collecting and the formation, management, and exhibition of collections may reveal changing trade routes or aesthetic preferences of a culture, the history of a political regime or psychology of a person, the emergence of new technologies or religious practices, the development of art markets or legal codes, or insights about the relationships between individuals, artists, and private and public institutions.
Motives for collecting range widely.
Some people collect for personal satisfaction. For example, Jason Rubell (T ’91) began collecting art to “satisfy an urge to define [his] place and time.” Art also helped Rubell to grapple with a family member’s death. Sisters Claribel and Etta Cone collected approximately three thousand artworks and objects, as well as textiles, jewelry, and decorative arts by artists from unfamiliar cultures simply because they enjoyed and wanted to live with them. Doris Duke became a lifelong collector of Islamic art and objects after becoming enamored with Islamic cultures during her honeymoon trip to the Middle East and South Asia. She later built a home, known as Shangri La, in Hawaii to house her collection.
Other people become collectors because of their careers. Such was the case with the brothers Ernest and Joseph Brummer, who amassed a collection of medieval art as dealers transporting works from Europe to the U.S. The Duke University Museum of Art (the precursor to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University) was founded in 1966 with the acquisition of 200 works from Mrs. Ella Brummer, Ernest’s widow.
Still others stumble into serious collecting by chance. Paul Clifford, a businessman who had long been interested in ancient cultures and archaeology, started collecting pre-Columbian objects in second-hand and antique shops in the 1950s. Then he met an elderly woman who was selling her nephew’s collection of ancient Peruvian artworks. Clifford purchased many of the objects for small fees. He went on to become a primary dealer of pre-Columbian objects for private collectors and museums, amassing his own collection at the same time. Clifford donated more than 2,000 pre-Columbian objects to Duke University beginning in 1973.
Unlike private collectors who acquire art for myriad personal reasons, museums have formal, written policies about what, where, when, why, and how they collect. Look for this information on a museum’s website. Many museums have digitized portions of their permanent collections, so try identifying the collection’s strengths and weaknesses and its evolution by looking at images online. For the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, check out the Collections, the Annual Report, or the Statement from the Director.
How do you look at a collection?
The questions you ask about a collection will depend on your interest, but it is helpful to think of a collection as a portrait of the collector, whether the collector is a private individual or a museum. Start by establishing information about the collector.
- Who is/was the collector?
- How, when, where, why did the collector begin collecting? What were/are the motives? What did/does the collector collect and from whom? Did/does the collector patronize the artist directly, go through a gallery dealer, or buy works at auction? What does the collector’s method of collecting reveal about the collection, if anything?
- Was the collection built systematically or haphazardly? Can you detect a common thread across the collection by looking at it?
- Is the collection still private, or was it donated or sold to the institution? What do you think are some advantages/disadvantages to keeping a collection private?
- If the collection is still owned and managed privately, why is it being exhibited publically in an institution? What is the collector’s relationship to the institution? How does the institution explain, or frame, the collector’s relationship to the collection and to the institution?
- If the collection now belongs to a museum, what place does it occupy within the museum’s permanent collection? How, when, and why did the collection become part of the museum’s permanent collection?
- How, when, and why did the museum accession, or acquire, various parts of the collection?
- How has the collection evolved over time? What works have been accessioned (added) or deaccessioned (removed)? Why? How has the interpretation of the objects changed?
- What narratives could you write about the genesis and evolution of the collection and the significance of its contents? What does the collection reveal about art, aesthetics, patronage, connoisseurship, economics, politics, history, psychology, trade, religion, human interaction, the role of institutions, law, science, etc.?
- Within the specific context of the art museum, how has/does the collection and its objects contribute to a definition of art? (Does the collection fit with the traditional definition of “art” as painting and sculpture? Does the collection help to expand the definition of “art”? What types of objects and media are included besides painting and sculpture?)
Look for archival documentation, as well as catalogues, journal and newspaper articles, and academic publications while doing your research.
Nasher Museum’s Collections
Exhibitions at the Nasher
Current: Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore (Nov. 4, 2012-Feb. 10, 2013)
Eat, Pray, Weave: Ancient Peruvian Art from the Collection (Sept. 15, 2012-Jan. 13, 2013)
Time Capsule, Age 13 to 21: The Contemporary Art Collection of Jason Rubell (Aug. 23, 2012-Jan. 6, 2013)
Upcoming: Light Sensitive: Photographic Works from North Carolina Collections (Feb. 14-May 12, 2013)
Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art (Aug. 29-Dec. 29, 2013)
Previous: Becoming: Photographs from the Wedge Collection (2011-2012)
The Evolution of the Nasher Collection (2005-2006)
Berzock, Kathleen Bickford, and Christa Clarke, eds. Representing Africa in American Art Museums: A Century of Collecting and Display. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.
Elsner, John, and Roger Cardinal, eds. The Cultures of Collecting. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.
Haskell, Francis. Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque. Revised and enlarged ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.
Levitov, Karen. Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore. New York: Jewish Museum; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.
Müller, Melissa. Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice. New York: Vendome Press, 2010.
Schroth, Sarah. The Evolution of the Nasher Collection. Durham: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2005.
Stourton, James. Great Collectors of our Time: Art Collecting since 1945. London: Scala, 2007.
Documentary films about art collectors
Herb and Dorothy. Directed by Megumi Sasaki, 2008.
The Art of the Steal. Directed by Don Argott, 2010.
The Collector: Allan Stone’s Life in Art. Directed by Olympia Stone. Floating Stone Productions, 2007.
The Desert of Forbidden Art. Directed by Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev. New York: Cinema Guild, 2010.