Monday, December 21, 2009

The Metropolitan Acquisitions Dinner

If you live in New York or have visited any large city in the U.S., and more and more abroad, you know that you can spend your life and your fortune going to benefit dinners for many of the noblest of causes and institutions from medical, to educational to art. They tend to be pretty interchangeable.

I recently attended such a dinner that was distinctly different.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art held its annual Acquisition Fund Dinner in the impressive surroundings of the Temple of Dendur. It is just what it sounds like. Its “raison d’ ĂȘtre” is to raise general acquisition funds for the institution which remains steadfast in its commitment to building its collections. Even in this difficult year the dinner yielded $1.3 million.

When Tom Campbell, the new director of the Metropolitan, was introduced he explained that when he took over at the helm on January 1, 2009 in the middle of the worst financial crises this country has known in 75 years, he was concerned as to how he would meet the expectations of the company assembled for this annual event. Major acquisitions had been regularly announced by the former director of the Met, Philippe de Montebello, who was responsible for the acquisition of some 84,000 plus works of art over his tenure of 31 years at the museum. But Tom Campbell realized that things would not be so bad, when, at his maiden acquisition committee meeting, Ian Wardropper, Chairman of the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Department, presented a major work of art. He proposed one of the prized oil lamps by the Italian Renaissance sculptor Andrea Riccio, and the funds were made available for its purchase.

The evening focused on two other acquisitions: a painting by the sixteenth century painter Jacopo Basano, and a collection of American art pottery. They were presented in short films produced by the Metropolitan showing the director and his curators discussing the acquisition process.

The Bassano, his last work, had been turned down when it was offered to the Met 40 years earlier. When the painting again became available, however, Keith Christiansen, the newly-appointed head of the European Paintings Department and a specialist in Italian Renaissance painting. became convinced that it was vital to the Museum’s collection because it completed the story of Renaissance Venetian art. Together, Campbell and Christiansen approached the collector Mark Fish, and when he viewed the work at the Toledo museum where it was on loan he agreed to buy the painting and make it a promised gift to the Museum.

In his closing remarks, the director announced that Mark Fish had told him earlier that day that when the gift was finalized it would be given in honor of Philippe de Montebello.

The collection of American Art Pottery was assembled by Bob Ellison over a 45 year period. It includes examples of all the important American potters from the last quarter of the 19th century through the first half of the 20th. The curator for American Decorative Arts, Nonnie Frelinghuysen, explained that when the American wing was being renovated she designed cases on the mezzanine gallery which would be perfect for housing the Ellison collection. She inserted images of pots from his collection in the designs. Bob Ellison said, that at that point Nonnie began to invite him regularly to follow the progress of the wing! In the end, what started out as a loan of 50 to 60 pots for the wing’s opening became a promised gift of the entire 250 piece collection. This was a wonderful illustration of the dynamic between curator and patron.

For the second time in the evening Tom Campbell thanked those assembled for being, in no small part, contributors to the acquisition funds that made it possible for new treasures to come to the Met.

Those participating not only received insight into what goes on behind the scenes, but they also felt part of the process, … a truly educational and uplifting evening.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

What is quality?

Last week I looked at “What Should I Collect”. So the next obvious question is how do I know that what I am buying is good or, looking at it another way, how do I learn to develop my eye to recognize quality when I see it.

If you have only seen one Monet it will be both the best one you have ever seen and the worst. It is only when you see the second that you begin to discern. You may be reacting to the subject matter or the colors, but comparison between two examples is the beginning of the educational process. Expertise does not come overnight: it is developed through a long process much like mastering a foreign language. Every related work of art that you see adds to your education. This is the essence of developing connoisseurship.

Books (or the internet) are not substitutes for looking at original works of art. They add to your information and give an understanding of what others before you have appreciated in your area of interest. It is important not to take what you read as gospel, but rather add it to your library of knowledge,--all so that you can make up your own mind about what you are looking at.

This allows me to digress for a moment. When you see an exhibition please please do not take the audio guide the first time through. Thirty years ago the chief art critic for the New York Times told me in an incredulous tone that the Metropolitan Museum had encouraged the art writers to use the audio guides for the exhibition that they were previewing. He felt this was insulting. He believed that as a professional he should be able to make up his own mind of what good was and not be led to what the museum thought were the best works of art in the show.

Audio guides are now more sophisticated offering random programming for more of the works of art (but not all) so you can decide where to stop. Still it is counterproductive for you to be told what is important before you have the chance to form your own opinions.

If you are interested in the exhibition, do go through it again (maybe on another day) with the audio guide to amplify or modify your initial reactions. This way you will build your own powers of discernment and you will be the judge as to how well you are being guided by your chosen mentors, be they dealers, curators….or headphones.

It is by honing your personal reactions through viewing, reading, listening and looking some more that you can become a true connoisseur. The process won’t be quick but I can promise you that it will be infinitely rewarding.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What should I collect ?

A question I am asked all the time is “what should I collect?” How can anyone answer that for someone else when the issue is so intensely personal? Nonetheless, I will make some suggestions.

First, go to your local museum. Does anything there turn you on? If so, you may be on your way. Nonetheless, move on to a general art museum in a big city. Give yourself a couple of days to take it all in. Start with an overview, walking through all the galleries. Then decide which galleries you want to return to. What intrigued you, --the familiar or the foreign, ancient or contemporary, American, African, Islamic art, Japanese, Chinese, Old Master, or Impressionist?. If there is a Kunsthalle (an exhibition space) check out the exhibition schedule. Get a listing of all the galleries in town and do a tour.

There are local art associations which may have gallery members who are involved in your specialty. Such an affiliation may add some comfort to your security. A place to start is at http// You can type in a special interest and see a listing from many associations in many countries as well as a listing of their members.

When you find an area that you relate to, seek out an expert, a curator or a dealer, who is willing to guide you. Even though this may seem like an intimidating idea, art professionals who are serious about their field love to talk about it. Someone once said to me that an art gallery is the only place you can walk in, start to ask questions, and the dealer will tell you everything about his business without your paying for the privilege. This was said a very long time ago but for the most part is still true today.

A renowned collector I know told me that, when he was surveying areas to collect, an art dealer put together a reading list for him. He followed it to libraries and specialized book dealers, devouring the latest publications, and out-of-print standards. He was hooked and that reading list gave him a solid foundation on which to build his collection.

Museum curators, like art dealers, look on their work as, in large part, educational. Curators may be less accessible, but museums often have collector groups which offer access and contact with fellow collectors. Remember curators need supporters, and collectors are potential donors. They want you to buy well so that the museum may eventually benefit through your loans or donations.

It comes down to the old Sy Syms advertisement, “An educated consumer is our best customer” be that as collector or museum patron If you show your sincerity in being interested in the art and not just its value, you will be well rewarded by with the most extraordinary personal tutorials.

Over time, collectors often become real experts in their field, having an advantage that goes beyond study,---they have the unique and intimate experience of living with the art.