This post comes to us from Jan Czepiel, Curatorial Volunteer.
The motivations and beginnings of private art collections are as unique as the collectors themselves. Collectors may work from a shoestring budget or from seemingly infinite resources. Some collections grow in value while others, as fine as they are, do not. Some collectors may build a collection purely for the love of art and others for investment. Yet somewhere within almost all art collectors is the appreciation for artistic expression. Who are some of these collectors? What effects do their collectors have on museums and the art community as a whole?
Historically, we can recall many illustrious art collectors – from Catherine the Great to Solomon R. Guggenheim and Gertrude and Leo Stein – as most of the world’s art museums have in fact grown out of private collections formed by royalty or the elite. Yet, one does not have to look far back in history or solely toward the upper echelons of society to find individuals who describe themselves as “impassioned collectors.”
In recent years, Herb Vogel, a postal worker, and his wife, Dorothy, a librarian, have made headlines for turning their one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan into a great repository of Minimalist and Conceptual art on two very modest salaries. Both Herb and Dorothy took art history classes and studied drawing and
painting at NYU’s Institute of Arts. When they acknowledged that they were not destined to be more than “wannabe” artists, they turned to the “joys of collecting.” From the onset, they were attracted to undiscovered or unappreciated artists of the early 1960s and attended gallery openings and frequented artists’ studios almost nightly. They keenly listened and learned about what inspired their work, and subsequently forged close personal relationships with dozens of artists. They bought only what they loved and viewed themselves as collectors first and foremost, never intending to sell or trade any of the art that they acquired. Today, after 45 years of collecting, they hold a significant collection of contemporary art that is now worth millions. For the Vogels, far more important than the monetary valueof the collection is its cultural value, which they have shared with the American public by giving their collection to the National Gallery of Art as well as fifty museums in fifty different states.
The story of Barbara Belgrade Spargo’s collection (highlights from which are currently on view at the Museum) parallels that of Herb and Dorothy Vogel. Ignited in the 1970s, Barbara Spargo’s lifelong devotion to collection art was sparked by the simple need to decorate the home, having “failed to keep indoor plants alive.” Initially compiled from visits to small art fairs in Old Saybrook, Mystic, and other towns in Connecticut, her collection was very humble at first.
While traveling in 1975, Barbara fell in love with the abstract expressionist watercolors of artist Paul Jenkins (b. 1923 ) that she saw in a California art gallery. Having developed “an instant emotional attachment to a work”, she “had to have it.” And so, she made her very first major purchase. Many more would follow, each the result of a visceral feeling, an intuitive attraction. An eclectic collection of European and American artworks, past and present, was born.
Over time, she came to cultivate a relationship with one particular gallery – Kraashaur- which helped focus her efforts and develop a collection with a coherent theme: American urban realism from the 19th and 20th centuries. After being handed a book on Ashcan artists by the owner of the gallery, Barbara realized that the Ashcan artists “captured her heart” for their daring rebellion against academic tradition. To deepen her knowledge of art history and sharpen her eye for modern American painting, she regularly attended exhibitions, earned a Masters in Liberal Studies from Wesleyan University, and became a docent at the Yale British Museum. Despite working on a tight budget and submitting herself to continuous debt, Barbara has become the proud owner of over 300 works of art, a significant portion of which she has chosen to bequeath to the NBMAA.
Indeed, it is the generosity of such benefactors as Barbara Spargo that makes it possible for museums to grow and expand – it is estimated that more than 90% of museums collections can be attributed to donations by private collectors! Furthermore, private hands frequently prove to be the source of loaned exhibitions and provide opportunities for museums to host a wide array of stimulating shows that may otherwise be out of reach due to high institutional loan fees. However, the relationship between collectors and public institutions is not always without a dose of controversy. When it is the collector rather than the institution and the public that seems to reap the greatest benefit, museums fall to the scrutiny of the media and the wider art community.
Recently, the New Museum became the target of criticism for organizing an exhibition of a private collection curated by a major contemporary artist whose work also happened to be heavily represented in the collection itself. Given the exhibition’s inclusion of many “iconic” artists, the Museum’s founding principle and mission of showing new art was called into question. Additionally, the fact that the collector stood to reap the financial benefits of having his collection appreciate in value after being shown in a large, well-known contemporary New York City Museum raised some eyebrows.
In 2007, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) took steps to help reduce the potential conflict of interests of exhibitions loaned from private collectors. The AAMD identified key questions directors and trustees should carefully consider in order to uphold high ethical standards and take advantage of opportunities for bringing fine works of art into the public eye without having to “rent out their reputation” or “act like a commercial gallery.” Are museums getting it “right” more times than not?
Please be sure to visit the Museum’s Davis Gallery to enjoy highlights from
The Barbara Belgrade Spargo Collection: Facets of Modernity (1900-1950) before the exhibition closes on Sunday, April 1st.