Collectors: Becoming front and center in the art world and in art history


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Henry Clay Frick, J. Pierpont Morgan, Louisine and Henry O. Havemeyer in New York; J. Paul Getty, Norton Simon, Arabella and Henry E. Huntington in Los Angeles; Andrew W. Mellon in Washington, D.C.; Claribel and Etta Cone in Baltimore. Big names in the art world — and merely a sampling of Americans whose art collections have shaped the nation’s museums.

The artistic legacies of American collectors get serious attention in scholarly circles. The back story is another matter. Biographers and journalists may revel in the messy business of how and why rich and powerful Americans spend fortunes on Rembrandts, Monets, Picassos and Rauschenbergs. Art historians tend to concentrate on connoisseurship and aesthetics.


That’s beginning to change. Thanks to expanding views of art history, a fresh crop of scholars intrigued with the socioeconomic context of collecting and the provenance of art objects are giving American collectors a new level of scrutiny and respect.

“The history of collecting is so deliciously interdisciplinary,” says Inge Reist, who directs the fledgling Center for the History of Collecting in America at the Frick Collection in New York. “It opens so many doors.” The center was established in 2007, after years of planning, “to stimulate awareness and study of the formation of fine and decorative arts collections from colonial times to the present, while asserting the relevance of this subject to art and cultural history.”

America developed an entrepreneurial style of collecting that continues today with power brokers and arts patrons playing enormous roles in the cultural lives of their cities. Billionaire Eli Broad bankrolled a building bearing his name at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but dashed hopes that his contemporary collection would go there and is planning to build his own museum at a yet-to-be-designated location in the L.A. area. The late Donald Fisher, who founded Gap Inc. with his wife, Doris, struck a deal that will make his contemporary art holding the centerpiece of a new wing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art — after a plan to erect a showcase for the collection at the Presidio was defeated by neighborhood protests.

For the full Arts & Books article, click here.

--Suzanne Muchnic

Sir Gerald Kelly’s portrait of Mr. Frick. Credit: Frick Art & Historical Center