A Crash Course in Museum Collecting

By Austėja Mackelaitė
September 26, 2017
Harvard Art Museums curatorial fellows, Harvard graduate students, and curator Edouard Kopp examine a drawing by François Chauveau in Paris as part of a workshop on collecting.

When I began as the Stanley H. Durwood Foundation Curatorial Fellow at the Harvard Art Museums last fall, I was excited to join an institution with such a long and esteemed history of collecting works on paper.

Harvard’s drawing collection was first formed in 1898, when Belinda Lull Randall (1816–1897) presented the Fogg Museum with a founding gift of 575 works, which she had inherited from her brother, John Witt Randall (1813–1892). The collection has grown steadily in the last 120 years. Today, more than 24,000 works, dating from the 14th century to the present, comprise the museums’ holdings of European and American drawings, making it one of the most comprehensive drawings collections in the United States.

During my time at the museums, I’ve learned that new works are added to the drawings collection every year through purchases and gifts. Yet when I first started flipping through auction and dealer catalogues in an attempt to identify works that could complement and strengthen the collection, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of possibilities. How, I wondered, do you narrow in on just one drawing when faced with so many offerings at auctions, by dealers, and on view at art fairs?

This was one of several key questions at the heart of the two-week Workshop on Collecting, organized last March by Edouard Kopp, the Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings. Participants, who included two second-year graduate students from Harvard’s Department of History of Art and Architecture and three curatorial fellows from the museums’ Division of European and American Art, spent the first week of the workshop in the museums’ Art Study Center and the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies.

We investigated the complex and fascinating ecosystem of the drawings market under the guidance of Edouard and a number of invited experts. Penley Knipe, the Philip and Lynn Straus Senior Conservator of Works of Art on Paper and head of the Paper Lab, and Anne Driesse, senior conservator of works of art on paper, led us in exercises in close looking, as we examined a variety of media, supports, and techniques. With the renowned Fragonard scholar Eunice Williams, we discussed the issue of fakes and forgeries and explored themes specific to the medium of drawing, as well as broader ideas concerning collection building. George Abrams (Harvard Class of ’57), the distinguished Boston-based collector who, together with his late wife Maida, amassed one of the world’s finest collections of Dutch drawings, shared his experiences and adventures in collecting Old Master drawings, helping us understand the immense changes in the art market over the last half-century.

Emboldened by this newly acquired knowledge and armed with good walking shoes (as advised by Martha Tedeschi, the museums’ Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director), we then flew to Paris to attend the famed Salon du Dessin, the leading international fair dedicated exclusively to drawings. Set against the grand backdrop of the Palais Brongniart, site of the historical stock exchange building, the salon housed 39 dealers and galleries from Europe, North America, and beyond, altogether displaying well over 1,000 drawings.

Austėja Mackelaitė examines a collage by Jean Dubuffet at Sotheby’s Paris.
Austėja Mackelaitė examines a collage by Jean Dubuffet at Sotheby’s Paris.

On the night of the preview, before the public opening of the salon, we split into two groups in order to visit as many booths as we could, searching for potential acquisitions. Within minutes, colorful sticker dots, indicating that certain drawings had already been bought or reserved, started appearing on labels across the booths. This feeding frenzy lasted for at least four hours, after which the group headed out for dinner to debrief. We returned to the Palais Brongniart the following afternoon to reexamine the drawings with fresh eyes and to make our final selection of potential purchases.

Our Parisian adventures extended far beyond the salon, as we visited auction sale previews at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Artcurial. As luck would have it, during the week of our visit to Paris, Jeffrey Horvitz, another major Boston-based drawings collector affiliated with the Harvard Art Museums, opened an exhibit at the Petit Palais showcasing his renowned collection of French paintings, sculpture, and drawings. Together with curator Alvin L. Clark, the Jeffrey E. Horvitz Consultative Curator of Drawings at the Harvard Art Museums and curator of the Horvitz Collection, Mr. Horvitz led us through galleries filled with drawings by Francois Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and others, sharing his knowledge of the art market and explaining his encyclopedic approach to collecting French art.

Having seen hundreds of drawings over the course of four days, we returned to Cambridge with a shortlist of four works (see them in the slideshow below) to present formally to director Martha Tedeschi as possible acquisitions.

  • Jean-Jacques de Boissieu, Small Oratory, or Farm near Lyon, 18th–19th century. Black chalk and grey wash. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Marian H. Phinney Fund, 2017.111.
    of Jean-Jacques de Boissieu, Small Oratory, or Farm near Lyon, 18th–19th century. Black chalk and grey wash. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Marian H. Phinney Fund, 2017.111.
  • Franz Skarbina, Young Woman in Street Costume, 1885. Graphite. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Marian H. Phinney Fund, 2017.112.
    of Franz Skarbina, Young Woman in Street Costume, 1885. Graphite. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Marian H. Phinney Fund, 2017.112.
  • Salvator Rosa, Chiron the Centaur Teaching the Young Achilles, c. 1666. Brown ink and brown wash over black chalk. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Richard Norton Fund, 2017.82.
    of Salvator Rosa, Chiron the Centaur Teaching the Young Achilles, c. 1666. Brown ink and brown wash over black chalk. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Richard Norton Fund, 2017.82.
  • Alberto Giacometti, Molloy, c. 1951. Ballpoint pen (and pen and ink?) on printed material. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Margaret Fisher Fund, 2017.98.
    of Alberto Giacometti, Molloy, c. 1951. Ballpoint pen (and pen and ink?) on printed material. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Margaret Fisher Fund, 2017.98.

We were pleased to see our proposed drawings accepted. The works have now been added to the museums’ collection, where they will be used in exhibitions, gallery installations, and teaching at the Art Study Center.

Beyond the obvious thrill of spending a week viewing art in Paris, the workshop greatly increased my confidence in approaching the art market and, crucially, helped demystify the acquisition process. It also revealed how much care, consideration, passion, and effort go into building a museum collection. Finally, the workshop underscored the importance of practical mentorship in curatorial training, where so much knowledge is neither codified nor published in textbooks but, instead, is acquired through guided experiences like this one. Such training opportunities are rare in the museum world, and they leave an indelible mark on the lives of mentees, becoming a solid foundation for building additional knowledge, skill, and expertise.

The Workshop on Collecting was organized thanks to the generous support of the Stanley H. Durwood Foundation.

Austėja Mackelaitė is the Stanley H. Durwood Foundation Curatorial Fellow in the Division of European and American Art at the Harvard Art Museums.