It is commonly known among Vassar students—and among members of the surrounding community—that the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center has a magnificent collection on display, ranging from Picasso to Pollock. What is not that commonly known is how the College has come to acquire such an impressive array of art from so many genres and different periods.
The Loeb, as it is referred to by students, is as old as the College. Initially supplying it with paintings, drawings and prints, Matthew Vassar valued art so much that he incorporated the Art Center as part of the College’s original plan, making it the first college in the United States to do so.
Currently, it houses a diverse collection of over 18,000 works ranging from ancient sculpture to contemporary photography. To get such a wide-ranging collection, Vassar has had to cultivate a wide range of donors.
Many of the most active donors to the Loeb are Vassar graduates who have retained loyalty to their alma mater over the years. In some cases, donors seek tax breaks by donating some of their collections, and in other cases, a donor will leave Vassar works of art in her will.
In either case, donations are discussed ahead of time to ensure that the piece benefits Vassar’s collection. James Mundy, the Director of the Loeb, emphasizes the importance of a consultation with a donor before a piece is donated.
“There’s a conversation about whether or not a gift can be a benefit for us, and sometimes it isn’t. It might be redundant [in the collection] or not of enough quality. The last thing we want to do is accept something and then store it away forever,” Mundy explained. He noted that occasionally he has had to reject works left in wills that do not fit in with the collection.
Having these conversations with donors helps the Loeb plan how other resources are spent. For example, if the staff knows they are receiving a French impressionist painting from a donor, they might not direct their funds towards that genre.
In addition to receiving works directly from donors, the Loeb is given endowment money that is bestowed to specific acquisition funds, which might stipulate the acquisition art before 1900, or towards the acquisition of photography, for example. However, Mundy explains that it is more efficient to work to find donors of works rather than rely on endowment funds. “One hour spent on cultivation of a donor is worth a lot more than trying to get funds,” he said.
Mundy went on to say that working with donors is one of the highlights of the entire process because they often have very distinct perspectives.
“Working with collectors is one of the most interesting things you can do, because these passionate collectors are not like most people. You have to be ready for that complete attention to the subject, the huge focus they have for the thing they love the most,” Mundy explained.
To illuminate the eccentricities he has encountered, Mundy described a rather morose collector of Medieval art with whom he recently worked. This man called art collection a disease, and amused himself by quizzing Mundy on the details of his collection.
On the other hand, Mundy also recounted his experience with a more ebullient German collector, who, in describing his approach to art collecting, explained that before purchasing anything, the piece needed to sing to him, and that he needed to have “Fingerspitzengefühl,” the German term denoting an intuitive feel for something.
While meeting with collectors is one of the more exciting aspects of the job, there are also many technical aspects of art acquisition. When finalizing an acquisition, the Loeb must consult with outside committees and institutions according to the guidelines set by the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Directors.
According to Joann Potter, the Registrar and Collections Manager, it must also ensure that it has been legally bought and can be safely transported to Vassar. Once that has been done, the work must be catalogued extensively to prevent any bureaucratic errors.
“The assistant registrar [Karen Hines], preparator [Bruce Bundock] and I work as a team to make the new object accessible and the staff and college accountable for it,” she said. Mundy added that the college must be able to trace its ownership history, noting specifically that they ought to know where the work was during the Nazi era, as Germany looted a large body of artwork.
Despite the necessity of legal and organizational work, the acquisition of art in the Loeb relies on the extensive training and keen eyes of the staff. Mundy explains that he often finds that collectors have a more optimistic view of their collections than he and other curators might.
“It’s like having children: your children are always the brightest. Museum people are essentially objective arbiters of quality and sometimes authenticity,” he said.
In addition, art collectors often have to take strategic approaches to their purchases. In the 1960s, the director of the Loeb would buy art in a completely different area than where the art market was currently focused. In this way, he was often ahead of the curve and would by significant works when they were relatively inexpensive.
Other times, the Loeb acquires something noteworthy by sheer luck. In fact, the Art Center’s most commercially expensive piece was only originally worth a few thousand dollars when originally acquired in 1955.
“Study for Portrait IV,” painted by Francis Bacon in 1953, was bought by Blanchette Ferry Rockefeller, John D. Rockefeller III’s wife, for a very small amount of money, when Bacon was relatively unknown.
Possibly due to the fact that it is a grim painting, Rockefeller, a Vassar graduate, donated it to Vassar two years later. Since then, however, this painting has been attached to the rise of Bacon’s classical style.
“This kind of painting [for Bacon] would last for another thirty years and become extremely popular, because he became recognized as a unique voice in the art making world,” Mundy explained. “No one else has anything like this for the most part, and there are very few of them.”