850 million. That's how many visits are made to museums across the United States each year, according to the American Association of Museums. Be it the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, or the Kentucky Railway Museum in New Haven, Ky., Americans are obsessed with spending their free days roaming through halls of history, art, and oddity.
Most, however, have no idea where the items they see on display come from. Museum acquisition is much more complicated than accepting an object from a donor and putting it under glass. On the contrary, curators go through time and trouble to insure that the exhibits the public views feature interesting objects of top quality.
Though the process of acquisition differs with the size and subject area of the museum, the reasoning behind it does not. Historical memorabilia and priceless artwork must both be of good quality that the public has an interest in.
For museums that specialize in artistic treasures, guardianship can encompass the care of works from Vincent Van Gogh to Robert Motherwell. For large art museums, the process of finding and displaying works to the public requires critical planning and a discerning eye.
At the Chicago Institute of Art, pieces that are displayed fall under two basic categories; gifts and bequests or purchased works.
Many of the gifts come from private collectors seeking tax credits. Suzanne McCullagh, curator of Earlier Prints and Drawings at the museum, recounts one summer in the early ‘80s when Degas paintings were coming in the door everyday. Edward Degas, a French Impressionist painter in the late 19th and early 20th century, has become known as one of history's most talented artists. 1964 was the last year to give works to museums for tax credit when the owners could hold onto the pieces while they were still living. That summer, those people started to die, and their treasured paintings of childlike ballerinas swathed in shimmering light and pastel color reverted to the museum's care.
Others donate to the museum based on its reputation and for a variety of reasons. The Chicago Institute also actively solicits gifts. Notable donated collections in the Earlier Prints and Drawings department include the Dorothy Braude Edinburgh collection of Old Master drawings. It encompasses works from the 15th to 18th century. Pietro da Contona's “Lamentation over the Dead Christ,” a detailed sketch that seems to vibrate with the quick strokes of brown ink, and black and white lead chalk, donated by Edinburgh, is part of the collection.
However, not all gifts are accepted. “It doesn't seem fair to accept things we are not going to use or show,” McCullagh said.
More than half the works in the Chicago Institute of Art are solicited or bought. A committee composed of representatives from 10 curatorial departments review acquisitions, vote on them and then make recommendations to the Board of Trustees every month.
After approval from the trustees, the curators can then move to acquire them.
Funding for acquisitions comes from a variety of sources. Money can be raised by soliciting monetary donations. Endowed funds are also available, of which curators are allowed to spend the interest of but not the principle. When using endowed funds, they usually try to buy according to the tastes of those who left the money.
In some cases, the Major Acquisitions Committee will present a specific proposal to the Board of Trustees about a work that is distinctly interesting or valuable in order to find funding for its purchase.
Pieces are occasionally bought at auction, though rarely. It is difficult to find the time to research an item properly when it is up for auction.
In general, McCullagh said, “there are fewer works of art out there of the quality we like.” To find worthy items, curators stay in touch with the markets. They often travel to see the items for themselves.
Pieces are generally selected for one or more of three reasons. Some are bought for their overwhelming quality. At times, pieces are bought because they complement or add to an existing collection. The Phillips Collection is rich in modern art and owns Edward Hopper's “Nighthawks.” To complement it, they might try to purchase pieces by other artists done in the same time period or works which communicate a feeling of loneliness, as this painting does.
Curators in other large museums work along much the same guidelines.
“We are always fortunate to get a lot of nice gifts,” Stephen Phillips, assistant curator at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., said.
For special exhibitions, the acquisition procedure is different. Phillips explained that the museum chooses a theme that fits well with items in their permanent collection. Curators start doing research to find what artists and objects fit into that theme. They pick key pieces that are necessary for the exhibit and then write loan requests for each museum and to collectors. Private collectors are sometimes reluctant to loan pieces. If the piece is key to the exhibit, curators and the director sometimes make personal visits “to beg for it. You might persuade them with your personal plea,” Phillips said.
When enough pieces are secured (a volume Phillips calls “critical mass”), the museum plans, constructs, advertises and finally, opens, an exhibit.
It is perhaps best explained by Jacquelyn Serwer, chief curator at the Corcoran in Washington D.C. “There are artists who suspect there is a conspiracy effort by which works get into a museum,” Serwer said, “but it is really a process.”
At small museums, staff members carry out the business of maintaining a museum on a more modest scale than those at large facilities. Their tasks are no less time consuming, and no less important to the people of the area.
“There's an education gap between the general public and museum professionals,” said Suzanne Kudlaty, curator of the Johnson County Museum of History in Franklin, Ind. The general public doesn't realize the amount of time and effort curators put into exhibits, she said.
At the history museum in Franklin, Kudlaty estimates that almost 95 percent of pieces are donated by members of the community. Family heirlooms are given to the museum for care. Some elderly people who are downsizing their homes donate antiques and collectibles so they can be viewed by the public rather than being sold to private citizens. Others simply do not have the space for the possessions.
Of those items, very few are displayed at any given time. Most are put in storage. The exhibits, “revolve around county history and telling some story about [it],” Kudlaty said. Pieces often end up in storage if they don't have some obvious bearing on county history.
Other pieces go into storage because of their condition. The museum is “much more geared toward preservation than conservation,” Kudlaty said. She defines conservation as repairing items before they are displayed, while preservation keeps artifacts in the condition they come to the museum in. The museum does not have a conservator on staff to repair severely damaged items. Instead they store them to ensure that they do not deteriorate further.
The items in good condition are cleaned or mended and dated. Any small repairs are made during this time. If the item goes well with the theme of a current or permanent exhibit, it is then put on display. Permanent exhibits center around county history. One exhibit tells the story of Johnson County during the Civil War. Another is dedicated to the Victorian period of the late 1800s. Items from storage are rotated through the permanent exhibits as space and time allows.
The museum owns a vast costume collection that grows as people donate antique wedding gowns and uniforms. Because the collection is so large, the clothing is displayed according to themes. Bridal gowns of a certain time period may be on display for a while, then changed to showcase shawls, dresses, and hats from the turn of the century.
“We're very connected to a small community and become the keeper of that lore,” Kudlaty said.
Other special exhibits are displayed for short periods of time in order to showcase areas the museum is specifically strong in. A new gun exhibit composed from guns in storage has recently been added for the Civil War room.
Kudlaty estimates that a much smaller amount of the museum's pieces are solicited. The historical society buys these items for display at the museum because of their importance to county history. Paintings by local artists are sometimes purchased for this reason.
“We really view ourselves as the guardians of family and community history,” Kudlaty said.
Museum acquisition is a process shared by every museum in the world, large or small, history, art, or other. It is a process that benefits the leisure time of many Americans, making lazy Sunday mornings spent at the local museum a little more special.