Prompted by Courtenay Finn
On Medium: “The Visionary vs. the Consumer,” by Yasmeen Siddiqui, in response to the Tilt West Roundtable: Curators, Collectors, and the Shaping of Art History
What role do collectors and private collections play in the construction of art history? And how has this changed in the last century? As art museums continue to open across the globe, what does the proliferation of these institutions do to our understanding of art history, the cultural value of objects, and the role of patronage? At a time when there are art museums without permanent collections and private collectors building their own museums, how has our understanding and definition of the museum changed? How have these changes impacted the role of the curator? And finally, with the increased focus on contemporary art—both in presentation and the market—are the roles of the museum, the curator, and the collector entering into a new era?
The general consensus of the role of the art museum is one in which works of artistic and cultural value are collected, preserved, interpreted, and displayed for the education of the public. Yet historically, collections of art in the United States were private, their public presentation a rare exception. From cabinets of curiosities, to the commissioning of works for private homes or sites of worship, the first collections of art were enclaves of patronage; objects and narratives directly related to wealth, status, and prestige. Yet by the early 19th century, the idea of granting public access to private collections had become more common. A combination of revolution, education, and philanthropy occurred, bringing within these societal and cultural shifts, the founding of museums intended expressly for the public.
The art museum in the United States can trace its history directly to that of private collectors–families and individuals with the means and interest for learning and supporting the work of artists. Many of these collectors, interested in sharing their collections and/or concerned with the longevity of their works, bequeathed them to museums, ensuring not just the safety of the objects in their care, but also guaranteeing their lasting significance in the public domain. And thus, some of the most important institutions in the American cultural landscape were started. These museums, among others, paved the way for a working model of the public art museum, one in which collectors help to fund, support, and grow not just the collection, but also the institution itself.
As the relationship between the collector and the museum has evolved, so too has the position of the curator. A short history of the curator can be traced back to Ancient Rome, where the curatores were senior civil servants in charge of various departments of public works. In medieval times, curatus was the term used for a priest devoted to the care of souls, and in the 19th century, a curator became known as a “caretaker” of objects, of collections, and ultimately, of museums themselves. Yet as artistic practice continued to shift and change form, so did the practice of those who create the situations in which we encounter art. Today, curators operate a multitude of roles, ranging from cultural broker, theorist, researcher, philosopher, caretaker, to producer, commissioner, and even activist. In choosing what, how, and where to display objects of art, curators construct narratives of importance, value, and significance, and our understanding of art history is directly affected by our understanding of artists and artworks as they have been presented in exhibitions and institutional contexts.
In the past twenty years, there has been an explosion of new private foundations and museums—spaces devoted to individual collections. These institutions represent a major shift in the centuries-old way of working between collectors, curators, and museums. So what happens when collectors decide to build their own museums or spaces? What is the role of the curator in a private collection versus that of a public institution? What happens when collectors themselves become curators? What does the creation and construction of private institutions, whose collections are built on connoisseurship, taste, access, and money, do to the overarching narrative and subsequent role of the public museum? How will the next generation of museums be funded, acquire works for their collections, and be seen and interpreted by the larger publics and audiences they serve? How does the role of the collector continue to impact our understanding of art history? And finally, what is next for both the role of the collector, the curator, and the art museum?
About the Prompter:
Courtenay Finn is currently the Curator at the Aspen Art Museum (AAM) in Aspen, Colorado, where she has curated numerous solo and group shows, each of which has used the exhibition as a framework to support artistic practice, offering the time for new research, or the support to work in a new medium for the first time. Exhibitions at the AAM include the group shows Gravity & Grace (2017), The Revolution Will Not Be Gray(2016–17), A Fragile But Marvelous Life (2015–16), Stories We Tell Ourselves (2015–16), The Blue of Distance (2015), and The Future Yesterday (2014–15). She has also curated first museum solo exhibitions by artists Anna Sew Hoy (2015–16) and Alice Channer (2014–15) alongside large-scale exhibitions of new work by artists Mickalene Thomas (2016), and Haris Epaminonda (2017). Prior to her time at the AAM, Finn was the Curator at Art in General in New York (2010–2014) where she curated Art in General’s first International New Commission with artist Mounira Al Solh (2012), and organized their first Collaborative Commission, a large-scale sculptural commission with artist Halsey Rodman and the High Desert Test Sites in Joshua Tree, CA (2014). She was also the co-curator of North by Northeast, the Latvian Pavilion for the 55th edition of the Venice Biennale (2013). Finn has an MA in Curatorial Practice from the California College of The Arts and a BFA in Fiber and Material Studies from the Cleveland Institute of Art.