When the Center for the History of Collecting was founded at the Frick Collection in New York in 2007, the field was relatively small. Most scholars privileged research that overlooked the influence of the patrons whose tastes can make an artist’s market or even dictate the canon. “I often say I went through a whole PhD programme at an Ivy League school where I wasn’t encouraged to study collections or the art market,” says founding director Inge Reist, who completed her doctorate at Columbia University. “It was all about iconography or stylistic influences—all very worthy but, especially in the US, our museums would not be what they are without collectors.”
Today, the landscape is different, in part because of the centre, which is celebrating ten years. Through publications, symposia, fellowships, oral histories, a book prize and other programming, Reist and her team have made collecting the subject of rigorous scholarship.
“Our timing has been outstanding,” Reist says, noting the explosion in collecting over the past decade. Exhibitions and books like those dedicated to the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection at the National Gallery of Art and the Stein family at the Metropolitan Museum have opened new avenues of research around postwar American painting and the early 20th-century Parisian avant-garde, respectively. The centre’s activities have even inspired followers: Last year, the Society for the History of Collecting was founded in London.
To mark its anniversary, the Center has published a book about its first decade of work that includes excerpts from an oral history conducted with Eli and Edythe Broad. Among the celebratory events is a symposium titled Sculpture: Collecting and Display, 1600–2000 (19-20 May), which includes a keynote address by the art historian Malcolm Baker. Another event, scheduled for 3-4 November at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is tied to that museum’s exhibition Old Masters Now: Rediscovering the Johnson Collection.
Reist is also holding preliminary discussions about a possible book series on important tastemakers and would like to do more work with living collectors as a “first draft of history”, she says. “I’d like to see greater engagement with those who are maybe just starting their collecting journey, who aren’t necessarily fully formed as collectors.”
Although some established connoisseurs Riest has approached have been skittish about speaking too openly and have requested their oral histories remain sealed for a period, she has no problem with that. “We are in this for the long haul.”