ARTnewsletter Archive

Creative Strategies Enhance Museum Collections

Major U.S. museums have continued to hone their acquisitions programs. Last year they boosted holdings in particular genres—among them contemporary art and photography—and in the works of artists from specific regions, such as Latin America. Amid a number of aggressive physical expansions and the effects of a volatile economy on endowments, museums have become more

NEW YORK—Major U.S. museums have continued to hone their acquisitions programs. Last year they boosted holdings in particular genres—among them contemporary art and photography—and in the works of artists from specific regions, such as Latin America. Amid a number of aggressive physical expansions and the effects of a volatile economy on endowments, museums have become more judicious and often strategic about adding important works to their collections.

One of the most high-profile purchases of the year was the acquisition by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art of a 14th-century Madonna and Child, by Italian painter Duccio di Buoninsegna, for $45 million from Christie’s. It was the highest price ever paid by the museum for any object of art. The tempera-and-gold painting on wood was described by the Met’s director Philippe de Montebello as destined to “become one of the signature works” at the museum, “filling a gap in our Renaissance collection that even the Metropolitan had scant hopes of closing.” The painting is on temporary display at the museum through mid-March, when it will be removed for conservation and scholarship.

Faced with rising costs to purchase, store and exhibit major works of art, museums are likely to employ one acquisition tactic with increasing frequency—teaming up with one or more other museums to acquire major works. Last year the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., jointly acquired the work Suspension of Disbelief (for Marine), 1991–92, one of the first examples of sculptural video by media artist Gary Hill. The piece, a video installation comprising 30 monitors set in an aluminum I-beam, is the artist’s proof for an edition of two and the only example of its kind in North America. The work will be on view at SFMoMA from March 25-May 30.

Also in San Francisco, the de Young Museum, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, has plans for even newer art. The museum has commissioned three site-specific artworks by Andy Goldsworthy, Gerhard Richter and James Turrell for its new building, designed by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron. The pieces are expected to be installed sometime in 2005.

The Miami Art Museum, which focuses on 20th- and 21st-century art and is in the planning stage of erecting a new building and sculpture garden on Biscayne Bay, also has commissioned artist Russell Crotty to create a globe drawing of the night skies over the Everglades that will be installed at the new facility. The museum has purchased another drawing by Crotty—Venus, Jupiter, Canopusover Payahokee, 2004—as well as paintings by Guillermo Kuitca, Miguel Angel Rios, Susan Rothenberg and Pat Steir.

Other museums also continued to build their modern and contemporary art collections in 2004. The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, which already has a contemporary bent, added to its holdings with the purchase of Belgian artist Francis Alÿs’s 2002-03 video installation When Faith Moves Mountains; French artist Yves Klein’s 1962 body-art work Mondo Cane Shroud; Christian Marclay’s 2004 media piece Shake Rattle and Roll (Fluxmix); and Kerry James Marshall’s 2003 acrylic and glitter on canvas, Gulf Stream.

Quick to Show New Acquisitions

Last June, after SFMoMA purchased the 2003 film Tide Table and six related drawings by South African artist William Kentridge, the museum immediately displayed the drawings in its newly dedicated works-on-paper gallery last July. Similarly the Los Angeles County Museum of Art moved quickly to exhibit its newly purchased, rare life-size plaster sculpture Seated Voltaire, which was created in 1778, just weeks before the French philosopher’s death.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, is also displaying, from Nov. 19-Feb. 27, sculpture acquired since 2000. Among other works that entered the museum’s collection last year were a recently purchased two-part drawing of The Gates project that Christo is installing this year in New York’s Central Park. Additionally the museum purchased a multimedia installation by Matthew Ritchie.

New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which also displayed scores of newly acquired objects when it was reopened to the public last November, installed these pieces not as a separate exhibition but throughout the regular galleries (with labels informing visitors that particular pieces are new). Among the recently acquired works purchased by the museum are Donald Judd’s Untitled, 1989, and Julie Mehretu’s Empirical Construction, Istanbul, 2003.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is undergoing a $180 million physical expansion and renovation, with the first phase slated for completion by the end of 2009. Nonetheless, the building efforts have not cut into the museum’s acquisitions program in any way, deputy director Katie Getchell told ARTnewsletter.

In 2004 the museum acquired 2,300 objects (purchases and gifts), including a 1946 charcoal drawing, Reclining Nude, by Henri Matisse, and a 1969 sculpture by George Segal entitled The Artist in His Loft. Both were purchased by the museum.

Getchell cites American art and contemporary art as the two highest-priority areas of collecting. She notes that the income from “close to 100 funds” may be used for acquisitions, which totaled $8.9 million in fiscal year 2004, down from $22.1 million in 2003.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, established a post-1900 Latin American department two years ago—the International Center for the Arts of the Americas—the first of its kind in the U.S. “Our experience is that Americans have very little knowledge in this area,” says museum director Peter Marzio. “They may have heard of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and pre-Columbian art, but they don’t know much about them or about anything in-between.” The differences between the art and cultures of the numerous countries comprising Central and South America are a mystery to many Americans as well, he added. A portion of the museum’s $5.5 million acquisitions budget, based on the income from five different funds, will be targeted at developing the collection of this new department. Among its Latin American art purchases last year was La Sordidez, from the series “Monstruos Cósmicos,” circa 1964, by Argentinian Antonio Berni (1905-81).

Expanding Holdings and Filling Gaps

Much like the Met, a number of other museums have focused on specific works to round out collections or fill holes in particular categories.

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., added to its 19th-century collection of photographs with the purchase at auction of an 1850s cyanotype photogram (a photograph made in sunlight without the use of camera), South America, by British photographer Anna Atkins. The museum paid $28,800 at a Sotheby’s auction last April, well above its $12,000/18,000 estimate.

The Art Institute of Chicago last year purchased a 1648 Self-Portrait etching, by Rembrandt, thus adding to the 277 prints it already owns by the 17th-century Dutch artist. The museum further added to its collection of black-and-white photographs by James VanDerZee (1886-1983) with the purchase of the 1935 Intrigue, as well as to holdings of works by Jasper Johns with the purchase of his 2002-03 encaustic-on-canvas Near the Lagoon.

Continuing its focus on Spanish works of art, the Meadows Museum of Southern Methodist University, Dallas, purchased a 15th-century altarpiece, Saint Vincent Ferrer, by Joan Reixach (active 1431-86) for a price in the “six figures” from Beddington and Blackman of London, a spokeswoman reports. Also purchased by the museum were three drawings by Catalan artist Julio González. The drawings, each of which cost “five-figures,” were purchased from Galería Elvira González, Madrid.

In December the Cleveland Museum of Art purchased a wide range of works for its collection, including: Marsden Hartley’s New Mexico Recollections, ca. 1923; Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Toothpaste Tube, 1964; a rare Self-Portrait by Edgar Degas, 1857; a six-panel Japanese God of Thunder screen, mid-17th-century; and an African Helmet Mask, early 20th-century.

At times museums acquire works in large quantities—for instance, the 1,465 gelatin silver-print photographs of Robert Adams that Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, recently purchased (see ANL, 1/18/05); and the group of 456 photographs by Ed Ruscha obtained by New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art that was part gift (of the artist) and part purchase (by the Leonard and Evelyn Lauder Foundation).

The Whitney bought a variety of other works last year as well, including an oil on canvas, 3 Hydra Rocks, 2001-04, by Brice Marden. The museum also purchased works shown at the 2004 Biennial, including a 16 mm film by Jack Goldstein, a video installation by Catherine Sullivan and an oil and acrylic on canvas by Mel Bochner.