A Curator's Perspective

The other day I received a note from Joyce Schiller, the new curator of the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies (and recently of the Delaware Art Museum). Joyce has been sampling some of the Graphic Tales back catalogue, so to speak, and was spurred to write by an exchange from last April. The back-and-forth at the time had to do with my enthusiasm, and David Apatoff's skepticism, for the work of Kerry James Marshall. One of the issues in play was the role of institutions (and particularly, museums) in the establishment of reputations and what some see as a "seal of approval"–deserved or otherwise–for the work of a given artist. Joyce offers the perspective of a curator who has worked inside such institutions. Wise words:

This is not intended as an apologia, but merely a personal observation. I am not speaking here for all art museums, art museum directors, or art museum curators nor as the voice of any specific museum. Having been employed at a variety of museums over the past thirty years, I have had the opportunity to see what happens behind the public spaces of various institutions. While most of the museums I have worked at have been focused on one (or two) subject specialties, the institutions that are encyclopedic in nature have developed an interesting approach to collecting art being produced contemporaneously. They tend to collect broadly, knowing that later some curator or director may weed their collections down (hopefully) to the great stuff from that period. It seems to me that collecting within the timeframe of an object’s creation is a slightly risky business. While each curator or director may be certain that their choices are “the best” later generations may re-adjudicate their choices. For example, in 1909 and 1911 the Saint Louis Art Museum hosted exhibits of then contemporary Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923). After each installation the institution purchased a couple of his paintings. This meant that his work would be in the collection to be enjoyed by the institution’s community and be available to be worked on by successive generations of museum staff. Well, not exactly. In the 1930s the museum’s director and curator decided to begin to weed out some of Sorolla’s paintings since his sun-filled realism was then out of fashion—not modern. By the time I was on the Museum’s staff, there was only one Sorolla painting left in the SLAM collections.

Then in 1988 and 89, a new Sorolla traveling exhibit was organized. It was seen at four venues, including the Saint Louis Art Museum. This was the first large traveling exhibit that I worked on along with a wonderful set of team members. It was an eye-opener. This was an artist about whom I know next to nothing and eventually I learned that some of the best works traveling with this show had indeed once been in the museum’s permanent collection.No museum’s collections can grow unchecked. They all weed in one way or another. I do not know of any acquisition budget nor a storage budget that are big enough to get and keep everything directors and curators desire. But some curators have been known to collect broadly with the unsaid understanding that in another time someone may move and change status of something they collected. What’s on today’s walls will change tomorrow. Very little is sacred.

And often what you see on the walls today with the implication that the museum and its curators think this is the best stuff, will in fact be relegated to storage tomorrow and perhaps even out to the market place the next day. Each curator realizes that their legacy is one part the objects they directly acquire for the museum, one part the scholarly material they create about their collections, and one part the charming of donations of objects from dealers and collectors out of their hands and into the museum’s. 

Thanks to Joyce for taking the time to capture that context for the rest of us.

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Two Sisters, Valencia, 1909; oil on canvas; now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, once in the collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM).







Under the Awning, 1910, the only Sorolla painting SLAM kept. Oil on canvas; Collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum