Historically, the major public museums of Europe and America, whether founded by royalty or civic leaders, have benefited from the ongoing incorporation of private collections. In essence, museums are collections of collections, both acquired as a whole and piecemeal. Rarely does a painting remain with the descendants of the original owners. Before they reached the Louvre, the National Gallery, or the Metropolitan Museum, Old Master paintings and drawings typically have traveled from collection to collection, assembled and disassembled through inheritance, sale, political conflict, or economic distress to reappear in different combinations in the homes and galleries of other collectors. For the most significant works, the journey ends with their acquisition by a museum by bequest, donation, or purchase.
Happily patrons with a passion for collecting and for sharing their treasures with the public continue to support museums with important donations. In 2017 the international Old Master community celebrated major gifts from Boston area collectors: the joint gift of 113 Dutch and Flemish paintings to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston by Eijk and Rose-Marie van Otterloo and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie and George Abrams’ donation of 330 Dutch drawings to the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, adding to his previous gift with his wife Maida of 140 drawings. These generous gifts of major collections, lovingly assembled by benefactors of Friends of CODART, are truly inspirational and transformative. Augmented by the donation of the library of the late Professor Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann and the establishment of the Center for Netherlandish Art at the MFA, these generous acts further enrich Harvard and the MFA and make Boston a major center for the study of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish art.
The decision of collectors to donate to an existing, well-established institution rather than to inaugurate a new, independent museum (typically titled with the donor’s own name) is significant. While both options celebrate the individual collector, a museum founded by a single donor typically freezes that collection in time, so that it only records a specific taste at a specific point in history. The great collections of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Wallace Collection, the Jacquemart-Andre, the Frick, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Norton Simon Museum remain static, their works not even available to other institutions as loans. By contrast, public museums provide a much more dynamic setting, placing the donated works of art in juxtaposition to a wide variety of related objects selected by other collectors or curators over a long period of time. The result inevitably fosters new insights and greater historical understanding.
Like past donations to public museums, the recent gifts to the MFA and Harvard reflect the commitment of the donors to share their personal collections with a wide public. Known and admired by students, scholars, and curators, their paintings and drawings now have permanent homes, where they can be enjoyed and studied, facilitate research and stimulate interest in the rich heritage of the art and culture of the Netherlands. Eyk and Rose-Marie van Otterloo were inspired to build a collection for donation to a museum after seeing A Mirror of Nature, an exhibition of the Edward and Hannah Carter Collection at the MFA in 1981. Edward Carter, who was instrumental in the founding of the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA), began collecting Dutch seventeenth-century paintings in the late 1960s with the intention of donating them to the museum. The Carter’s exemplary collection of thirty-six Dutch landscapes, still lifes, seascapes, and cityscapes is now part of the permanent collection of LACMA.
What these collectors have in common is not only passion for Dutch and Flemish paintings and drawings, but also intellectual curiosity in the pursuit of quality. As George Abrams has noted, the excellence of a collection requires hard work and dedication. Knowledge and confidence to develop an “eye” and the ability to select the best works demand that the collector study and experience firsthand as many drawings and paintings as possible in museums, at exhibitions, art fairs, dealers, and, when possible, in private collections. Every successful collector benefits from a partnership with curators, scholars, and dealers who help nurture his skills as a connoisseur. These professionals also provide insight into the intricacies of the art market and can help the collector recognize the best representation of a particular genre or the best works of a particular artist. Collecting should be fun; like many activities in life, it is enhanced by knowing others who share one’s enthusiasm and experiences, in this case, learning about different artists, pursuing works of art, and simply gazing proudly at a new acquisition.
Friends of CODART
Recognizing the symbiotic relationship of collectors, curators, scholars, and dealers, Gerdien Verschoor created the Friends of CODART Foundation in 2007 to stimulate exchange between curators and patrons through special activities. The Friends of CODART also help underwrite curators’ congress fees and travel to attend activities organized by CODART. The highly successful programs offered by the Friends to its members include special lectures and museum visits to exhibitions and permanent collections hosted by curators. The Patrons’ Salon for major benefactors is an annual seminar held in Maastricht Saturday morning during the first weekend of TEFAF. Past programs have presented discussions on a variety of subjects, including the collection of George and Maida Abrams, frames, loan requests, paintings conservation, and the relevance of the Old Masters in today’s world. Through their participation in these activities, collectors and patrons from Europe and the Americas meet and share experiences with fellow collectors and enhance invaluable personal relationships with curators.
The greatest Friend of CODART, of course, is Gerdien. With her beauty, charm, creativity and organizational skills as the director of CODART, she has brought together curators from Japan, Israel, Europe, and the Americas in stimulating programs, keeping us connected through the news and information reported on the excellent website and eZine. A tribute to her leadership skills and warm personality is the continuity of her wonderful staff, who have helped to fulfill her ideas and plans. She has also become a great friend to many of us, especially those of us who have had the opportunity to work with her. I will always remember the fun we had organizing the study trip to Los Angeles and over lunches in The Hague.
Gerdien, although I am sad that you are leaving the leadership of CODART, I am excited for you. I can’t wait to see what new chapters in your life you write! I am sorry I will not be at the celebration, but I will raise my glass in Los Angeles and send my love, best wishes for the future, and hopes that we will stay in touch! Love, Amy
Dr. Amy Walsh is Independent Curator and Provenance Researcher and the former curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). She has been a member of CODART since 2006