The art of collecting

Human beings collect stuff. We squirrel away things for nostalgia, for security or just to show off. But when we get together and create a museum, the collecting takes on a whole new dimension.

Over the last year, Tacoma’s two art museums have taken a good, hard look at their whole business of collecting. One, the Tacoma Art Museum, has unveiled an ambitious 10-year plan to become the nation’s premier collection for Northwest-based art, building a $20 million endowment to do so. The other, the Museum of Glass, is one year into a fledgling collection, focused on modern glass.

But why do museums collect in the first place? How do they do it? And who benefits?

Ask museum directors Stephanie Stebich or Tim Close why their institutions need to collect, and they’ll agree on one thing: telling stories.

“We’re collecting for the future, telling stories of our community,” said Stebich, director of the Tacoma Art Museum. Part of that telling, she said, is helping people connect with their heritage, local environment and the wider cultural world.

Over at the Museum of Glass, the answer is built into the museum’s very mission statement says director Close: to tell the story of glass. This, of course, is what MOG has been doing for its first five years without a collection: hosting Hot Shop artists, mounting traveling shows and occasionally commissioning works. But the museum intends to dig deep into the story of 20th- and 21st-century glass art, and to do that, says Close, it needs a permanent collection.

“Collecting is the DNA of a museum,” Close said. “You come to museums for wonderment, enlightenment.”

It’s an interesting statement that implies that, whatever MOG has been doing until this point, it’s only going to fully achieve museumhood with a collection. Which could well be the case: Most art museums in this country have some sort of permanent collection. In fact, that’s how some museums begin, as a venue to house a big private collection.

The Museum of Glass has held off until now to build its collection, citing changes of direction (from contemporary art to pure glass) and management. In fact, it’s starting early: The Tacoma Art Museum didn’t begin collecting until 1963, 30-odd years after it began operations. But the simple fact is that art costs, and building a museum-standard collection takes either committed donors or a lot of money.

“Eighty percent of museum acquisitions come from donors,” Close said. Stebich agrees with him. Private collectors decide to give to museums, either donating or gifting a work, for many reasons: taxes, prestige, passion for art, civic-mindedness. Both TAM and MOG are currently exhibiting shows taken from their collections; in each, the majority of works display the name of a donor.

Which is well and good. The trouble comes when gifts don’t complement each other or match the mission of the museum. In its collection TAM has 3,641 objects ranging from art jewelry to contemporary American Indian to early modern to historical Japanese prints, with up to 100 coming in each year. Many are the result of collectors donating their own complete (but esoteric) collections. Now, however, TAM’s board has decided to move from being the “passive recipient of the community’s collective generosity to an active leadership role.” In other words, it’s going to decide what it wants to collect.

And that’s going to be Northwest art. TAM’s new goal is to build the country’s premier collection of Northwest art – quite a task, considering it has competitors like Portland Art Museum, with a Northwest collection of 6,150 objects, and Spokane’s Museum of Arts and Culture, with a strong regional focus. Meanwhile, the Museum of Glass has chosen contemporary glass art as its collection focus, aiming for “the best artists, rather than quantity,” said curator Melissa Post.


The question is, how do you get what you want without paying for it? Answer: Develop relationships. Stebich and Close, along with their curatorial staff and collections committees made up of local curators, gallerists, artists and collectors, spend a lot of time meeting with prominent collectors, introducing them to artists, attending national conferences and generally getting the word out about what they’re looking for. Stebich in particular has detailed plans for programming education and social events, and launching a Collectors’ Circle this fall where high-level members can contribute a certain amount to a purchasing pool and vote regularly on which works get bought.

Sandy Desner, president of an Olympia real estate company, is a good example of the kind of person museums like to attract: A collector for 25 years, Desner is now on both TAM’s board and collections committee. “The Tacoma Art Museum’s vision is to be a national model for regional museums,” Desner said.

For MOG, acquiring good contemporary glass art is much easier with artists working onsite. The Visiting Artists program, which invites around 24 internationally known artists of all media into the museum’s Hot Shop every year, has a provision for one work made during the residency to be given to the museum. The 100-plus objects thus acquired can be seen rotating in MoG’s back gallery.

It’s a synergy that “heightens the sensory experience,” said Close, and, at its best, creates the symbiosis of works such as Preston Singletary’s “Clan House,” an enormous fused glass sculpture commissioned by MOG, made in the Hot Shop and part of a MOG-organized show that will travel nationwide.

Likewise, “Fluent Steps,” the only part of the collection housed in the outdoor pools, was made by Martin Blank during a residency.

And for both museums, it helps that the collection is out on display. “People are already coming out and offering us works they have that are better than what we have up, or are missing,” Stebich said of the current Northwest art show at TAM. “Once we publish our collection plan, we’ll get an avalanche of offers.”

Getting what you want, of course, is much easier with money, and an acquisitions endowment is the Holy Grail for most museums. TAM’s endowment capital stands at a very modest $100,000, which doesn’t produce much spending money annually; Portland Art Museum, by comparison, has a $3.5 million endowment, with annual spending of around $500,000.

A 1994 deaccessioning of TAM’s decorative arts collection yielded funds for more Northwest purchases. But there’s clearly a need for a bigger budget, and the 10-year plan aims at building the endowment to $5 million by fall, $20 million eventually. The Museum of Glass has neither an acquisitions budget nor an endowment, but Close says they’re planning for one within three to five years.


Of course, there are other reasons for museums to collect other than to tell stories. Directors need to prove track records to build careers. Collections raise a museum’s prestige and worth, although value is something Stebich says is not a consideration in the acquisition process. A strong collection can be lent to other museums, building credit for reciprocal loans, and even traveled – something important to Close, though not high on Stebich’s list. A good collection will pull in visitors and attract good board members, and even be good economically for Tacoma.

But one of the most basic reasons for a collection is so ordinary people can walk in, anytime, and see original art. Works at MOG like Libensky/Brychtova’s “The Second Queen,” stately and groundbreaking in its use of cast glass for modernist sculpture, works at TAM like Renoir’s “The Two Sisters” of 1890 or the enormous iconic cardboard “Leroy the Pup” say, in their quality and creativity, as much about human originality in an age of reproduction as they do about our culture.

“Museums exist because of art,” said Brian Ferriso, director of Portland Art Museum, where the total collection numbers 42,000 works. “We preserve, celebrate and educate about man’s greatest artistic achievements.”

Permanent collections may not be as sexy as traveling blockbusters, but the difference between a museum that collects and one that doesn’t was, until this year, right in front of our faces. MOG, while an exciting place to see live artists, only changed its traveling exhibits yearly, and some spaces – like the outdoor pools – remained empty for months. This was partly lack of curator, but partly financial practicality. Tacoma Art Museum, on the other hand, has rotated visiting and home-grown shows every few months. With strong collections, our museums can constantly tell different stories of our community.

Because this, after all, is what a local museum is about: a place by and for people who have committed to art.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568