Inge Reist’s father was not interested in the subject of money. A medievalist in the comp lit department at Columbia, he reserved a “certain disdain for business and the stock market,” according to his daughter, and preferred instead to spend his time thinking about more meaningful things. “I think,” Ms. Reist said, “it was just the culture among academics to have this disdain for things that related to commerce.”
Ms. Reist began her career in the academy too, as an art history graduate student at Columbia. But since 1980, she has worked at the Frick Collection, the small but stunning museum that houses the collection of steel magnate Henry Clay Frick. In her current role at the Frick’s Art Reference Library, Ms. Reist heads a research center dedicated to a cause her father might have found questionable. Namely, she is the director of the Center for the History of Collecting in America—essentially a think tank that was established in 2007 in order to encourage scholars to pursue a field within art history that Ms. Reist and her colleagues feel has been largely overlooked by the academy.
The history of art collecting and patronage, according to Ms. Reist, is in many ways the history of art itself, and to study art from an aesthetic point of view without studying the material conditions under which it was paid for, displayed and preserved is to ignore something quite essential.
The question of whether private art collections present an opportunity for serious historical research has been in the news lately, thanks to a controversial exhibition planned at the New Museum that will showcase the collection of museum trustee Dakis Joannou. Critics like Modern Art Notes blogger Tyler Green have asked why museum-goers should care which paintings and sculptures some Greek industrialist has chosen to spend his millions on over the years, and why—regardless of the quality of Mr. Joannau’s holdings—one wealthy individual’s taste in art constitutes a meaningful organizing principle for an entire show. Ms. Reist and her colleagues at the Center for Collecting believe that private collections and the stories behind their assembly can in fact be fertile ground for research.
“One of the reasons why certain works of art survive is that specific individuals cared enough about them to recognize their value,” Ms. Reist said in an interview.
Put another way, according to Barnard art history professor and Frick advisor Anne Higonnet, collectors sort of decide what is art and what isn’t.
“Collectors decide whether a rug is art, whether porcelains are art, whether paintings are art,” Ms. Higonnet said. “For instance, the 1890s were a big turning point, because collectors started to look back at old paintings and buy them for new reasons. They began to buy them increasingly for reasons to do with form rather than content. And so you could say that collectors were as important to the whole process of modernism as those who made the art, because they transformed how we saw old art.”
And yet, Ms. Reist said, she “cannot think of any university that really encourages a lot of investigation into past ownership or collecting.” Consequently, she said, one of the goals of the center is to “encourage inclusion of this as a component of an art history degree.”
To that end, the center has been hosting symposia; awarding fellowships and grants to scholars who are working on projects related to art collecting; providing researchers with access to archives and databases; working with university professors on developing courses on the subject; and most recently, inaugurating a $25,000 book prize that Ms. Reist hopes will help expand the body of literature that exists on the topic of collecting. (The first recipient of the prize, named last week, is Julia Meech, who has written a book on Frank Lloyd Wright’s collection of Japanese woodblock prints.)
“This whole mechanism for the movement of goods—which is what it is—is fascinating to learn about,” Ms. Reist said. “And we learn a lot about subjects other than just pure art history—it’s not just stylistic analysis or iconographic interpretation. There’s more. And I don’t think it’s at all besides the point.”
She said the atmosphere within the academy has changed since her father’s days at Columbia, and she seems confident that the center’s mission will be embraced, not held in contempt by purists.
“I think art history, like everything else, goes through fashions of interpretation, and I think we’re coming out of a theoretical phase and returning to a greater focus on works of art as objects,” she said. “It’s only natural that the history of collecting then becomes part and parcel of that.”
Ms. Reist cited several milestones that have been crucial in opening up the field over the past several decades, starting in the 1980s, when the Getty introduced a pioneering database of auction catalogs and records related to the buying and selling of art.
“All of a sudden ownership became much more of a source of interest,” Ms. Reist said. “Because of the Frick’s resources, I was doing a lot of explaining and workshops and methodology seminars on how to do research on provenance.”
Jonathan Brown, a scholar of Spanish art at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts who serves on the center’s advisory board and who was instrumental in its founding, cited several major recent exhibitions that were organized around the activities of certain collectors, including the Met’s 2006 Ambroise Vollard show and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 2008 William Randolph Hearst show.
“The interest is growing very, very rapidly,” Mr. Brown said. “It’s starting to happen.”
According to Mr. Brown, the Frick research center is a boon to the field not only because it offers grants and makes available a collection of archives, but because it gives the study of art collecting the “mark of institutional legitimacy.”
“The Frick Collection is an important museum, and if it looks introspectively at itself and recognizes the extent to which it is itself an important part of the history of collecting, it just marks for art history the arrival of the subject,” Mr. Brown said.