Off the Cuff: Building Our Collection on a Budget

Charles Shepard, President & CEO

An art museum’s collection is the heart of the institution. It is the wellspring for countless exhibitions and, in many respects, comes to define the museum. The size and scope of any museum collection will vary generally in relation to the institution’s resources.  The Smithsonian Art Museum has, for example, a very large annual budget for acquiring additional art for their already vast collection. Plus, given its high visibility and great reputation, the Smithsonian attracts droves of art donations from wealthy art collectors. By contrast, a great number of smaller museums have little to no annual dollars for purchasing art; and, come to rely almost entirely on art donations from a more modest and generally more localized pool of collectors.

Our museum is more fortunate than many our size in that we have cultivated both a sizable pool of collection funds for annual purchases and we have, over time, expanded our network of art donors across the country. This has come about because we have become better known for our creative approach to collecting and developed a reputation for making good choices, both in terms of the art we purchase and the art we seek in donation from collectors.

But what guides those choices? How do we decide what to buy or what donations to seek? Let’s start with this: back in 2005, we began our focus on American and related art. That led me to work up a pretty extensive list of historically important American artists whose work we would want to add to the museum’s collection and another list of European artists who either taught or influenced those American artists. This was our initial shopping list: we needed a Benjamin West (America’s first trained painter); we needed a Charles Willson Peale (one of West’s students and founder of America’s first art museum); we needed a Gilbert Stuart (another of West’s students whose portrait of Washington today still graces our one dollar bill); and so on. The list then stretched over the centuries and decades until it reached the contemporary artists of our time. It was, and still is, a huge list. Even early on, we knew that acquiring an artwork by everyone on that long list would probably not be possible. But the list was a great guide that provided a logical system for searching for art to add to the collection. It won’t surprise you, but immediately we discovered that almost anything from the earliest American artists, like West and his students, was either unavailable or financially way beyond our reach. So, we began to research artists on our gigantic list whose talents might have received high accolades back in the day, but their current popularity had declined. The prints of James McNeill Whistler are a very good example: while his relatively small number of available paintings still sell at auction for millions, his many high quality etchings are frequently available at quite reasonable prices. The museum, in fact, bought two splendid examples (see one below) just last month.

In this etching by Whistler, the foreground is taken up by a dock with people standing and sitting as boats come in on the tide. We can make out tiny people on the incoming boats and one far off in the distance heading back to sea. On the right hand side is the city with tall buildings extending into the background. The sky is cloudy and meets the churning sea.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, American, 1834-1903. Billingsgate. Etching on laid paper, 1859. Museum purchase with funds from the June E. Enoch Collections Fund, 1951.36. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Another terrific example is the work of highly regarded artists of the 1920s and 1930s whose work is not currently fashionable. More than 100 artists populate this particular category and their works come to market often and at reasonable prices. So the historic significance and quality of certain artworks, combined with their current market affordability, would guide the museum to attempt to acquire works such as these. In every generation of artists that followed the first century of American art, marketplace factors have influenced current pricing in an ever fluctuating way. To be an intelligent buyer and to make good choices for this museum, I feel that I must endlessly track the marketplace to discover the highest quality objects for the best possible prices. So, from one perspective, I am always searching for the best work that helps our museum tell the story of the evolution of American art history at the best price. 

In this quest, I have no agenda other than acquiring and sharing the art that has, generation by generation, chronicled this nation’s progress and travails. My sole goal is to use this art to raise our understanding and awareness of how artists have seen the country as it has evolved, and their views of where it currently seems to be heading. I approach this goal as objectively as I can, and sincerely hope that what we as a museum offer to our community inspires, engages, and offers insight into the artists’ perspective of our cultural evolution.

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