Purchasing a Major Work of Art for the Collection – part II

In my previous entry, I introduced a wonderful object, an Indian bronze of Shiva from the tenth century. I am tracing the way that this work of art entered the Brooklyn Museum’s collection in 2007, offering an introduction to the various concerns curators address when determining what objects a museum should buy. Today I’m going to talk about the very important issue of backing, both financial and administrative.

If you’re going to consider buying a major work of art for a museum, the first thing you need is cash, or a sense of where to get it. The Brooklyn Museum is not known for spending large sums of money on works of art. Unlike many other American museums, Brooklyn does not have particularly large endowments for art purchases. The Museum has done very well over the years, but primarily through gifts of works of art and very judicious purchases of lower-cost objects in areas that have not yet been “discovered” by the market.

So it was pretty unusual when I was set to the task of finding a major (read: high-priced) Asian work of art to purchase in honor of Amy G. Poster, my predecessor. Amy retired from the Museum in the summer of 2006 after more than 35 years of service. During her long tenure, Amy had attracted a large following of collectors and donors, many of whom had made contributions over the years. A while ago, the Museum received as a bequest a large collection of Indian and Southeast Asian art that contained a lot of objects that were not up to our standards (as well as some good things). We sold off the minor pieces and kept the proceeds for future acquisitions. As a result, there was some money in our coffers, and Amy’s retirement was such a momentous event that we felt inspired to spend it all on one object. After a quick tally of available funds, we had a good sense of how much we had to spend. Suffice it to say that it was less than $1 million. In other fields, that would be chicken feed, but luckily most types of Asian art are still relatively affordable and we were confident of our ability to find something great within our budget.

Throughout my discussion of the acquisition of this object, I will be using a lot of “we.” It’s not a royal we, believe me. It’s plural. First of all, the process began before I even arrived, and even before Amy’s last day. I came in on it after a period of searching but before the perfect work of art was found. Amy really led the search, which might sound a little presumptuous given that the object was supposed to honor her, but it actually made loads of sense because Amy knows the market better than almost anyone, and she certainly knew what sorts of objects the collection needed. Her involvement guaranteed that she wouldn’t be disappointed by the object that bears her name. The idea to purchase a work of art came from several of our Trustees, who are ardent supporters of the Asian art collection and its activities. They were involved in all the discussions and decisions. They also presented the idea to our Director. It’s really a good idea to make sure that the donors and administrators are behind you before embarking on a search for a major acquisition. As in any aspect of life, you’re far more likely to get better results if you involve your funders in big decisions, rather than suddenly plunking some really expensive object in front of them and saying “buy this for me now.”

On that sage note, I will sign off for now. Next time: the curatorial shopping list…