Private Collecting, Public Display: Art Markets & Museums Conference Summary

PhD student and conference organiser Caroline McCaffrey-Howarth summarises our recent conference

On 30th and 31st March 2017 the Research Centre for the Study of the Arts and Antiques Market hosted their inaugural conference: Private Collecting and Public Display: Art Markets & Museums and were delighted to have over 80 delegates in attendance.

Centre Director Dr Mark Westgarth opened the conference and argued for a legitimization of the art and antiques market as a scholarly discipline. He noted the historical relationships between the porous boundaries of the private and public spheres and ended by asking delegates to question what constitutes and creates the formation of private and public boundaries, particularly in relation to the art market, the histories of collecting, and the role of the museum.

Over the two days delegates heard stimulating new research from seven panels, examining the private and public boundaries between art markets, museums, and collectors. Topics included the birth of museums, display, current museum practices, the role of art dealers and the art market, issues of deaccessioning, and questions regarding ‘museum quality’.

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Keynote Lecture: Dr Susanna Avery-Quash, Senior Research Curator (History of Collecting) at the National Gallery, London. Entitled: Shades of Grey and Areas of Tension: challenges and opportunities arising from the blurred boundaries between private and public collections and the art market.

Day One ended with a thought-provoking keynote lecture from Dr Susanna Avery-Quash. Dr Avery-Quash opened her keynote by promoting the notion of collaboration between the academic fields of the history of collecting and the art market, citing a variety of recent conferences, publications, and scholarly programmes. Dr Avery-Quash also highlighted the founding of two new academic societies in the field: Society for the History of Collecting and The International Art Markets Association. Throughout her keynote Dr Avery-Quash examined the trajectory of private collections entering public domains, focusing on three themes: 1) Influence of Donors, 2) Finance, and 3) Professionalization of Collections.

Using the National Gallery as her case study, she described that in the 1830s the National Gallery was criticized for being indistinguishable from that of a private collection, and credited Sir Charles Eastlake, the first director of the museum, for professionalizing the museum. Dr Avery-Quash noted that Eastlake was constantly discussing, learning, and buying from members of the trade, for example Otto Mundler, as well as orchestrating loans and donations from private collectors. Dr Avery-Quash celebrated this creative interchange between private and public spheres, although also acknowledged the subjectivity involved in what constituted ‘museum quality’ and therefore what should or should not be put on display.

In the concluding section of the keynote Dr Avery-Quash argued for the importance of visible provenance research, which is crucial to the life and narrative behind an art object, and also discussed the need for a better symbiosis between research and curatorial art expertise. She urged delegates to look towards the future, noting the importance of preserving dealer and collector archives and the potential of digital data and virtual reality programmes for disseminating knowledge. Finally, Dr Avery-Quash advocated the importance of collaboration between the art market, collectors, museums, and those involved professionally in each respective field, and this was met with resounding agreement from the floor.

-Posted by Caroline McCaffrey-Howarth

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