Inge Reist is the director of the Center for the History of Collecting in America at the Frick Art Reference Library of The Frick Collection, New York. She plays additional roles as chief of research collections, which includes the Frick photo archive, and choosing what books to buy for the Frick Library. Reist’s essays on the history of collecting include “Helen Clay Frick, Charting her own Course” in Power Underestimated: American Women Art Collectors (2011). She is also co-editor (with the Getty’s Gail Feigenbaum) of Provenance: An Alternative Art History (2012), about the “social life of art.”
Since the Center for the History of Collecting was founded in 2007, it has produced 13 symposia about art collecting; the 14th, on collecting photography, will take place this May. The Center runs an archive directory for the history of collecting in America, publishes books and awards book prizes and fellowships for study in this area, and is collaborating with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art to produce 10 oral and video histories of contemporary collectors who played a formative role in shaping American collecting during the 20th century. “The history of art collection and patronage is in many ways the history of art itself,” Reist has said.
In her introduction to an onstage interview with collectors Eli and Edythe Broad and Joanne Heyler, founding director of LA’s new Broad Museum, Reist noted that the purpose of the Center for the History of Collecting is “to nurture the study of collectors of art, old and new, and of the patrons, because I don’t think it’s overly dramatic to say that without the patrons and collectors, our institutions would be severely challenged, and without the patrons, who knows how many artists might starve?”
I talked to Inge Reist by phone the same February weekend The New York Times reported that one third of the work from the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. is being absorbed into the National Gallery of Art, a “collection of collections.” Reist had flown out of New York in time to miss another big snow storm, and spoke from the passenger seat of a car hurtling along a freeway to Pasadena to visit a few museums.
Artillery: You’ve said you made it all the way through a doctoral program at an Ivy League university without being asked to look at an auction catalog or think about market forces. What got you started in this area of inquiry?
Inge Reist: The Frick has an extraordinary photo archive consisting of about a million and a quarter photographic reproductions of works of art. The documentation is not just for the photograph itself; it’s basically documentation of the work it records, like a catalogue raisonné entry, that gives what I always describe as the biography of the work of art: where it has been, who has owned it, to which artist it has been attributed, where it has been exhibited, and the condition of the work. One of the areas documented most assiduously is the provenance. So the collecting history—which by its very nature references all of these auction catalogs that we have (about 90,000 in the library, going back to the 17th century, many of them annotated with prices and buyers’ names)—moves the needle along to the next level of ownership. The photo archive, together with Jonathan Brown [at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts], who’s always been a great proponent of the study of the history of collecting (in his case, more European), and the presence of the Getty provenance index and the interest that the Getty always had in the subject, too, led me to be interested in the history of collecting.
Is the history of collecting going to be a field of scholarly study unto itself?
Definitely. When I was in graduate school we were not encouraged to investigate issues of provenance, to derive meaning or interpretations from the actions of collectors and patrons. Art history was all much more about stylistic analysis and iconographic interpretations, and attribution issues. But the fact that people are reveling in interdisciplinary studies lately feeds into the fascination with the history of collecting. We are going to learn more about the socio-economic conditions that supported (or drained) collecting practices at a given moment in time. Economic downturns have impact on people selling their art; it’s often one of the first liquid assets to go. The cultural history element in interdisciplinary studies makes it quite an accessible field. If you look at how many museum exhibitions lately have been shaped around a particular collection, like the Clark Brothers or the Winthrop Collection, the Meyerhoff Collection—or even a dealer, in the case of Ambroise Vollard—that’s an indication, too, that not only scholars but the general public really enjoy the insights that come from knowing more about collectors themselves.
How did you move into the oral history component with living collectors?
I think of oral histories as being the first draft of the history of collecting in our own time. It’s from the horse’s mouth. Collectors don’t always tell the truth, or they want to redact statements; often they don’t want the transcript to be available until a certain number of years after their death, but even if people can’t have instant gratification of hearing the interview with Steve Martin, they’ll have it eventually. We do this project together with the Archives of American Art. They do the transcription of these quite lengthy undertakings, usually a total of between two and four hours’ worth of interview. We’ve done Eli Broad, Alfred Taubman, Steve Martin, Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, Peter Lunder, Tony Ganz.
And will these be available to listen to?
Not always listen—read.
What’s an example of history repeating itself in the art world?
Nowadays, with such a hot market in contemporary art, people think, “Oh my gosh, this is crazy!” But Henry Clay Frick, J.P. Morgan, Henry Walters—all of the big Gilded Age collectors who are known nowadays for their Old Masters collections—started by collecting contemporary art. Frick moved into a different category altogether with his Old Masters and earlier 19th century; others stuck with it. William Henry Vanderbilt never stopped collecting contemporary.
When people now talk about art being used as a financial instrument, and they think that’s such a new thing, I always say, think again. The sale of art is always a financial transaction, and people handled money in ways that were personally advantageous then as now. People don’t change that much; that’s one thing you learn through the history of collecting. Of course, bubbles can burst. When Frick was collecting his full-length portraits by Gainsborough, he paid top dollar, like getting an Andy Warhol. They don’t go for so much today. Things come and go, in and out of fashion; it’s all cyclical. The trouble is, nobody knows what the next cycle is going to be.
Does history help predict that?
I don’t think so!
On the whole, if there’s a lot of new money out there, very new money tends to buy new art, which is kind of understandable when people are living in the here and now, not so much delving into history. In some instances—Frick being a good example—as people mature, both in business and collecting, they start becoming curious about other time periods, other cultures.
Do you collect art yourself?
Not really. For many years, I was married to an artist, so what was on the wall were his paintings. My current husband and I buy art; we like art a lot. I don’t collect in any specific category. I don’t even collect books, because I work in a library. And the museums are so wonderful—well, everywhere, but especially in the United States. Those are my collections, in a way.
What are your favorite collections to visit in LA?
I love the Norton Simon. I’m very excited about the opening of the Broad Museum; I think that’s going to be really cool. It’s a fantastic building with great flexibility. I love the Huntington Library, but that’s almost like old home week for me. And Michael Govan has done great things with the LA County Museum of Art. The first time I went to see it, around 1980 or ’81, it had some masterpieces, but not really a robust collection. It’s amazing how that museum has grown over 35 years. The Getty Museum and the whole campus is an extraordinary monument to the culture of our times.
After lots of study of collectors and collecting, is there any general statement you can make about the motivation to collect? Is it a gene, a “bug,” a drug?
The one thing most serious collectors have in common is that collecting is an obsession for them. And they often have a desire for completeness, whether in a category or all of a certain artist’s different periods. There’s kind of an analytical approach that underlies what they collect. But true collectors are really just lured by the object. I asked one collector, ‘Has there ever been a work of art you bought that you regretted?’ And he said, ‘Yes, my first!’
“Seen through the Collector’s Lens: 175 Years of Photography” will take place at the Frick Collection on May 8 and 9, and will include 10 panelists speaking on collecting from the days of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to the present. More information available at frick.org/research/center/symposia.