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“What Can You Give Me for Seven Dollars?”

Today’s post comes from Justine Paradis, class of 2013 and Art Center Docent.

From left to right: James Mundy, Deborah M. Rothschild, Eric Brown, and Jonathan Kagan.
Photo by Carlos Hernandez ’14

To enjoy a museum, you don’t need to know the work involved to put a collection together. However, the shape of a museum’s collection is almost always determined by an intriguing web of relationships among curators, gallery owners, collectors, and artists. The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is no exception, and on Friday, January 25, a curator, gallery owner, and collector sat down with a museum director for a panel discussion on the business of building a collection.
FLLAC director James Mundy opened the talk with a review of Vassar’s major art donors and curators—the people who helped give Vassar’s collection its shape. First, of course, Mundy talked about Elias Lyman Magoon, the 19th-century art enthusiast and trustee of the college whose personal trove of art was purchased by Matthew Vassar as the founding collection. Without Magoon’s paricular vision and aesthetic, FLLAC would not be the same museum. Magoon was a Baptist minister, and he collected on a budget, cultivating relationships with artists. He left behind a large, colorful correspondence, and Mundy recounted one of Magoon’s letters in which he asked an artist, “What can you give me for seven dollars?”

Photo by Carlos Hernandez ’14

Since Magoon’s collecting days, the art world has changed. Although Hudson River School paintings are no longer available for under $10, the principle of strong relationships among artist, donor, collector, and curator has stayed the same. The importance of this sentiment was corroborated by all three panelists: art dealer Eric Brown (Vassar class of 1990) of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York, Williams College Museum of Art curator emerita Deborah M. Rothschild (Vassar class of 1971), and collector Jonathan Kagan.
It’s true that the art world can be extremely competitive, but Rothschild believes that curators and artists are ultimately working towards the same end. She described the situation as “mutually supportive.” Curators want to put together cohesive, interesting exhibitions that complement their collections, and they want to honor artists. Artists want to support themselves and see their art exhibited in a way that feels right for the work. As an example of this mutuality, Rothschild told the audience that in every single-artist exhibition she has curated for a museum, the institution has acquired a work by the artist for its permanent collection, either through purchase or donation from the artist.

Photo by Carlos Hernandez ’14

Kagan shared his perspective on today’s landscape of collecting and American museums. Although he wasn’t certain that society can afford an infinite number of museums, he was pleased that American museums have matured to such a high level of integrity and are characterized by such breadth. He agreed with Brown and Rothschild about the importance of relationships among collectors, donors, and curators, especially in an economically unstable environment. Without museums, “collecting culture” is weak.
Brown agreed. He explained that in his work with the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, the process of finding art helps everyone involved. Whether he is searching for a work of art for a collector, or researching a work’s provenance, or seeking a home for a particular work, he gets to make creative connections. Once his job is done, the curator or collector gets to make decisions about the artwork, placing it in a specific collection or show. “We all feel smart for a day,” he said.

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