Thursday 4 June 2009

On private collectors and their public displays

I like the stories behind the creation and growth of art collections.

One of the things I've noticed is that the stories of private collectors are usually less self-recriminating than those of institutions ("we got mugged by the local arts society" "we let some lady in Britain make all the calls on international purchases for two decades" "we're underfunded" "we just didn't understand X artist at the time").

This is not to say that public collecting institutions are not sometimes brave, or even inspired, in what they buy (or emotionally charged about what they don't buy: there's a great telegram in the Auckland Art Gallery Library where Peter Tomory vents his annoyance to a colleague after missing out on some old master: "Nuts repeat nuts lose this bargain"*).

But I think it's interesting that when a private collector puts their accumulated works out on display, it's the personality as much as the art that goes on public trial. Would a journalist writing about a collection show at MoMA, for example, query whether it was essentially a self-promotional activity to show how great the curator is, as Agnes Poirer suggests about Francois Pinault's newly opened gallery in Venice?. Or, likewise, charge the curator with being "a bit cavalier with the works he buys and shows" as Adrian Searle does in this this review of the latest Saatchi Gallery show?

Personally, as a visitor to both public and private collections, it's the story about why a collector chose to throw in their lot with these particular works that fascinates me. I'd love to see more presence of the curator-as-collector in public galleries. It's all about making me care.

*Inexact mental transcription of a record not seen in 6 years

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