Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager
Acquisitions. Every museum has them! If you frequent guided tours, you may hear phrases such as, “This work was acquired when…” or, “We acquired this work from…”; although, you may not have thought much about it. It seems simple: museums get new artwork and then they exhibit it – that’s the whole point, right? Well, when it comes to acquisitions, there is a little more to the process for museums and other cultural institutions.
First, let’s get our perfunctory definition out of the way. An acquisition is defined as an asset or object bought or obtained (acquired), typically by a library or museum; the museum gets something, and then it becomes an acquisition. This can be done through purchases by the museum itself from places such as auction houses, individual collectors, online auctions, or artists and through gifts from members of the community, artists, foundations, and institutions. From time-to-time, museums can also receive bequests when an individual passes away either from the individual or their family. It’s hard to say which way of acquiring, by purchase or gift, makes up more of a museum’s collection; it likely comes down to each year’s set of circumstances, as budgets ebb and flow, as does the regularity of individuals wishing to part with their artwork.
But do museums accept everything that they have the opportunity to buy or that people bring through the doors as gifts? No – most museums and cultural institutions have instituted procedures that guide their collecting and acquisition policies.
Aptly named a Collections Policy, this document outlines the main goals for collecting and growing the permanent collection – we have one ourselves at FWMoA. These collection goals set criteria for potential acquisitions and often address a number of broad terms. For instance, does a particular work of art align with the museum’s mission statement or collection policy? Are there other, stronger works of art already in the collection that provide a superior example of an artist’s oeuvre or artistic movement? And, finally, is the work authentic?
Our first criteria, concerning whether or not a particular work of art aligns with the mission statement or collections policy, is the first question that must be answered. In the case of younger museums with smaller collections, it may not even be considered. For instance, when FWMoA was first founded in 1921, it was started thanks to a generous gift about 20 paintings from Theodore Thieme. Now, we are fortunate that Theime was an astute art collector himself with a quality collection; but, that first board of directors wouldn’t have told him “No” due to his work not fitting into an early idea of what the museum should be – in fact, it’s likely that the board did not even have a specific goal in mind for the museum yet. But, following this initial donation, numerous works were gifted to the growing museum, and its directors were happy to accept them – after all, the more work they accepted, the larger and better the museum would get.
As museums grow and mature, however, they need to critically examine what their collection looks like and where they want it to go. For instance, FWMoA now strives to have premier examples from the history of American art, with a particular focus on works on paper (drawings, lithographs, watercolors, screenprints, engravings, etchings, etc.). This is much more precise than the early days of FWMoA, and that’s because we are now in the position to be picky! As a result, we may not accept a work relating to the Middle Ages, as it would not enhance our collection and the goals we have for ourselves. That doesn’t mean that this hypothetical Middle Ages work is of poor quality, we just aren’t the best home for it. In doing so, we ensure that our permanent collection is the best that it can be, providing our public with the highest quality of examples from American art and the various movements that it entails.
Our next point of discussion, whether or not there is a stronger example within the collection, relates to our previous point. As a museum’s collection grows, it naturally starts to amass a wide variety of works of art, especially as it starts to specialize in a certain area. While the museum may be presented with a quality gift, they will first look at what they already have. If, after referencing the works already in the permanent collection, it turns out that a similar work is already owned, or even a work of higher quality, the museum may not accept the gift. They may also suggest a different institution, one which doesn’t have work by that artist or specializes in that art movement, to help fill in the gaps for that collection or ensure it gets viewed more regularly.
Finally, we have authenticity. This may not be an issue that museums have to deal with regularly, but it’s always something that needs to be considered when acquiring a new work of art. The world of art forgery is a lucrative one, and the best can be hard to spot – this is when the importance of provenance comes in, making sure the proper paper-trail can be followed. However, when it comes to most gifts or purchases, it comes down to knowing whether or not a work, such as a print, is an authentic work by the artist or a reproduction. While technically authentic, a reproduction wouldn’t have the same art historical value, and thus may not be a good fit for the museum to acquire, especially if they already have a quality example of that artist’s work in their collection. It all comes full circle!
We can see that acquisitions, while simple to obtain and necessary to a museum’s continued growth, are not as straightforward as initially thought. Many museums today are deliberate in their collecting as their specialization allows them to create a permanent collection that will enrich their communities for decades to come! We can see how FWMoA has molded and tweaked its own collection policies over its 100-year history in the current exhibition A Century of Making Meaning: 100 Years of Collecting; and it will likely continue to shift and change in the next 100 years, forever evolving and carving its own niche in the artistic community.