Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh





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Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1947-1989),

Louise Nevelson, 1986, gelatin silver print,

Gruber Family Fund, 2002

Insights into Building a Great Art Collection

By Ellen S. Wilson


Museum collections tell a story.  In the case of Carnegie Museum of Art, the story is about Pittsburgh, about personal connections, curatorial instinct, and luck.  While much of the museum's collection is currently on view in Panopticon, visitors may well wonder where it all came from, and what stories lie behind some of the pieces assembled during a century of collecting.


Andrew Carnegie’s mandate in founding the museum of art was to focus on contemporary art, and he established the Carnegie International as the avenue for acquiring the “Old Masters of tomorrow.”  As a result, about one third of the collection has been acquired from past Internationals.  Equally important, changes in museum leadership, economic fluctuations, public taste, and even war have  influenced the rate and the quality of acquisitions. 


“Traditionally, there was no acquisitions budget,” explains Richard Armstrong, Henry J Heinz II director of the museum.  “The Scaife family’s gifts through the 1960s and 1970s were the most transformational thing that has happened in the history of this institution.  Between their decisions to buy, under curatorial guidance, a series of very important 19th and 20th century works, and to concomitantly build a facility to accommodate them, they changed the museum. It was the single most important act of patronage since the founding of the museum. 


“Our contemporary collection, principally works after 1970, is what distinguishes us,” Armstrong continues.  “Since 1982, we’ve been in a good moment in terms of acquisitions and exhibitions. And in the wake of the Second Century Fund, the purchases that predate 1945 over the last ten years have also been very distinguished.”


Twenty-one years may seem like a long "moment," but curators at art museums take the long view. Putting an object in a museum makes a statement about its value, and buying work from a living artist is tantamount to blessing that artist’s career.  Exhibiting work in the Carnegie International may not guarantee long-term artistic or monetary success, but it does elevate an artist’s reputation and name recognition.  For many artists, it is the most important exhibition of their career.


Because the contemporary “canon” is still being formed,  “ determining what is ‘good’ or not is, of course, a matter of, hopefully, good judgment, some instinct, and – this is important – experience and research,” says Laura Hoptman, curator of contemporary art and curator of the 2004 Carnegie International.  “One will not be right all the time, particularly since we are assembling the collection not only for our generation but for subsequent ones.  But one can be smart a lot of the time – smart enough to create a coherent record of the time in which we are living, from the point of view of international visual culture.”


Making Sense of a Century


When curators consider making a purchase, they think primarily about how it fits with what the museum already has, and with the "story" the collection tells.  And they all speak of it as a story. While the last century has not been easy to summarize, the collection does reflect major themes. Love, hate, sex, death, and the eternal battles over who we are and how we function are all illustrated here, but selectively. The curators become editors, judging what pieces fit to further the plot.


“Just because something is a great object doesn’t mean that it is appropriate for this collection,” says Sarah Nichols, chief curator and curator of decorative arts.  “You try to collect objectively,  rather than subjectively, but there is a gut feeling.  It has to be a great piece of design, wonderful proportions, interesting use of materials.  It might be innovative for its time.” 


Montreuil Fountain, St. Antoine District (at the corner of rue de Charonne) 1904-1905, vintage albumen prints from glass plate negatives, Second Centruy Acquisition Fund, 2002.

And it has to fit.  “One area where we have depth is circa 1900, which was the height of the Arts and Crafts movement in America and England, Art Nouveau in France, the birth of Modernism in Europe,” Nichols continues.  “We are strong in Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau, and it makes sense to collect from the other European countries that were introducing the idea of Modernism at this time.  We also focus on architect-designed objects, especially chairs. We already have a good chair collection, and we are known for that.” 


For contemporary purchases, Laura Hoptman takes into consideration a work’s relevance to global culture.  “We just purchased a video installation by the Albanian artist Anri Sala,” she explains.  “Sala is the first Albanian artist in anyone’s memory to participate in the contemporary art discourse.  His films and installations touch on contemporary life in Tirana, Albania’s capital, but they also reflect the contemporary anomie of European life fifty years after the Second World War.”

Building on Strengths


For fine arts, says curator Louise Lippincott,  “We try to build out from our strengths, geographically and chronologically, which are French and American paintings from 1870 to 1910. The nice thing about that is that we already own the expensive pieces.  Now when we need to represent the major figures, or the major movements, we buy more expensive things less often.  For this type of collecting, I am very disciplined.  The dealers in this country and Europe know what I’m looking for, and I follow the international auctions carefully.”


Because Lippincott’s field is painting and sculpture before 1945, new discoveries are rare, and opportunities to buy rarer still.  Occasionally, however, a piece comes to light unexpectedly, and for that there is what Lippincott calls “mad money,” in hand and ready to go without the year or so of planning required by the big expenditures.


“I was flipping through an auction catalogue in 1993, and there was an 1845 Roman landscape painting by Andreas Achenbach.” Lippincott recounts. “The sale was a week away, in Germany, and there was no way I could go.  But the painting fit in very well with our collection.”


 “By sheer good luck,” the painting did not sell at auction.  Lippincott had the condition of the painting checked by a trusted agent, negotiated the price, and was able to bring it to Pittsburgh.


“This is a big, important painting in perfect condition, and it turned out to be a very important picture in Achenbach’s career.  We lent it back to the Düsseldorf museum for an Achenbach show.” Achenbach’s ­­­­Italian Landscape is on view in  Panopticon, number 316.


Beatriz Meilhazes (Brazilian, b. 1960) Nazareth das Frainhas, 2002, acrylic on canvas, Alexander C. and Tillie S. Speyer Fund for Contemporary Art, in honor of Madeline Grynsztejn, 2002. One of the foremost painters in South America, Milhazes mixes stenciling with paint and straight painting, producing an effect that recalls the fabrics that are one of her most important sources.


Sometimes major gifts dictate the course of the collection.  The recent gift by Mr. and Mrs. William Block of 39 pieces of contemporary glass, featured recently in Contemporary Directions: Glass from the Maxine and William Block Collection, means that the museum suddenly has a significant glass collection.  “We’re going to make sure we maintain that collection,” states Nichols.  “And with the new Pittsburgh Glass Center, a teaching facility, having opened, it makes sense to develop a contemporary glass collection.” 


Gifts from the Charles and Mary Grace Carpenter Collection had a similarly transforming effect, “bringing to the collection key works by some of the most important American artists of the past fifty years,” says Hoptman.  “Claes Oldenburg’s Sandwich (1961) comes from his earliest and most groundbreaking period –  around 1962 – when he first began sculpting commonplace objects in papier mache.  This will be the jewel in our growing Pop collection, a perfect foil for our Warhol Campbell’s Tomato Soup Box.”


Relying on Relationships


Luck, however well-deserved, often has little to do with the acquisitions and how they are discovered.  “It depends,” explains Linda Batis, associate curator of fine arts, “on the relationships we build by hitting the pavement and going from gallery to gallery, going to fairs regularly.  I try to keep in touch with the dealers I know, who might have something I’m interested in.” 


Sometimes, in other words, it all depends on getting the right tip, in time to act on it.  And that depends on the curator.


“The curatorial staff is really without peer,” says Armstrong. “Not only in their ability to find and purchase art but also in their ability to exhibit it, and in the number and quality of exhibitions they mount.  It’s unusual.”


Like any story, then, the pieces have to be in the proper order. But the mystery still lies in the choosing.  Carnegie Museum of Art, like all art museums, may not exactly establish the canon, but it does suggest what it ought to be, suggestions that are borne out of education and experience as well as instinct. As Armstrong says, the museum participates in the “consensual discernment” of which art objects are the important ones.


 “That is one of the processes that distinguishes the Carnegie International, the demonstrable prescience of our curatorial staff since the mid-1980s.


“One strategy of contemporary art is to collect aggressively, recognizing that only a portion--and we hope a significant portion--of what has been collected will prove to be consensually significant, worthy of prolonged consideration by the culture. There are empirical ways of testing that. One of them is the marketplace. 


"At the most fundamental level, however” Armstrong adds, "the museum buys something simply because it is beautiful.”


Several of Carnegie Museum of Art's recent acquisitions will be on display in the 2nd floor gallery to the left of the museum's Grand Staircase, March 1 through March 25.



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