Yesterday, My boyfriend was surprised to hear that I follow auction season. “Doesn’t that clash with your focus on museums?” he asked. The answer is yes and no. Of course there is a tension between the private art market and the museum world. If you’re speaking of modern or Impressionist art, which is where a lot of big money gets exchanged at the auctions, there is a very finite number of works in the world. They can either stay in private hands or get picked up by a museum. The relationship between private collectors and museums, however, is more symbiotic than you might think.
Many people like to think of private collectors as “stealing” from the possible pool of museum acquisitions. I’m sure there are also some collectors out there who’d love to get there hands on a few museum pieces. I like to think of the connection between the two as somewhat cyclical. Every museum has a collections committee, some incredibly prestigious. These museums rely on the savvy and wealth of collectors to bring important works, whether from other private collections or their own. Museum pieces must come from somewhere after all.
Some of the most important museum pieces or groups of works are bequests from private collectors. One of the most famous might be the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The collection contains everything from medieval art to nineteenth century paintings. It was given to the museum in 1969 following Mr. Lehman’s death. Another important example is the Chester Dale Collection at the National Gallery of Art, including many beautiful Impressionist and Post Impressionist works.
The collectors who donate to museums, in turn, get benefits also. Donating to a museum means eternal notoriety for a generous act. You get a grateful public and all around good name. For goodness sakes, Robert Lehman has an entire wing of one of the world’s best museums bearing his name.
It may be sad for a while that we as a public cannot see some of the pieces in private collections in person, but rest assured they are being well cared for. I can also bet that as long as there are art museums, there will be generous collectors donating wonderful art.