Does art still need collectors? Where these days should the notion of collector end and that of custodian begin?

Several stakeholders weigh in


The question”Does art still need collectors?” is a subtext to a number of the more important contributions in this issue. Eugene Thaw, collector, dealer and renouned patron of the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, argues passionately for the primacy of possession. It is only with the object in hand, and after a cerebral but profoundly ascetic process of selection and ordering has been made, that the work of art comes into its own. In other words, the object enters into a dialogue with its owner.

Collectors are robbers is the message of Professor Elia of Boston in his critique of the forthcoming exhibition of the Fleischman collection of antiquities at the Getty Museum. Only when collectors such as the Fleischmans have abandoned the New York and London galleries will the practice of site robbery wither away. Antiquities are the fur coats of the 90s art world: they do not need collectors.

No, antiquities are global patrimony states Johnny Eskenazi, dealer in Indian and South East Asian art, who has just opened a gallery in Bond St this summer. Fund archaeological digs is the message to governments such as Italy’s and a legal market which allows for private collecting will prosper without damaging the art on which it relies.

In a rare interview, Valentin Rodionov, director of Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, speaks of his anxiety to collect well for his newly reopened museum. Then only art which has passed the test of time will enter the collection. But this is a tentative, circular approach which may eventually kill off the inner dynamics of the collection rather than nourish it. Art needs courageous collectors. If one acknowledges Mr Thaw’s humane, perhaps old-fashioned conception of the great joy returned by the work of art to the collector, then the responsibility of the collector in truth must be a weighty one.

Where these days should the notion of collector end and that of custodian begin? The proposed sale by the Marquess of Cholmondely at Christie’s of two pairs of chairs from the sets of forty-eight and seventy-two made for Houghton Hall 250 years ago has no logic, no order, no sense of what collecting means—or at least meant. One can only hope that Lord Cholmondely is indeed testing the water to establish a market value for his chairs, to be followed by a deal in lieu of tax so that they remain at Houghton.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Does art still need collectors?'