The Young Collector
In September Andrew attended the 2016 annual conference of the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH). Earlier this year two of his graduate school classmates, always looking for a chance to be supportive, suggested that they build on their experiences as museum professionals and combine Andrew’s experience in the trade to pitch the idea of a panel they titled “Pricing the Priceless: An Introduction to the Antiques Trade for Museum Professionals.” And AASLH bought it! As an added bonus, the 2016 AASLH conference was in Detroit, a city that despite being hit particularly hard by the recession still retains a wealth of riches in art, history, museums, and collecting. As a child of the Rust Belt himself, Andrew always enjoys visiting Detroit and looking for glimpses of growth and renewal.
With little time in his schedule, Andrew couldn’t attend the entire conference, so he drove up the morning of the presentation. It was technically still summer, so the unofficial Ohio state flower, the orange construction barrel, was still everywhere along the roadsides. He zipped into the city with a few hours to spare, checked in, grabbed a quick lunch, and registered, and then met up with his fellow panelists.
For the event Andrew teamed up with Erika Holst and Cedar Imboden Phillips. Erika is the curator at Edwards Place in Springfield, Illinois, and has been at her job since 2010, during which time she’s overseen a major restoration of the first floor of the home. For Erika and for Edwards Place, that was an opportunity to examine the entire collection and make some selective choices about deaccessioning. Andrew assisted with some advice on what unrelated material to sell and how best to sell it, and over time, those objects were converted to funds for needed acquisitions to finish out the first floor and to update the organization’s insurance appraisal.
Cedar is the executive director of the Hennepin History Museum in Minneapolis, where she’s been for about two years. She’s in the early stages of developing better collection policies and just getting a handle on the collection. She sought Andrew’s advice on deaccessioning one unnecessary but valuable object so the museum could use the funds to help nudge along the evolving collection care process.
Between them, Erika and Cedar felt they had learned a lot from their interactions with the trade side of the antiques world and realized they had benefited from having a friend in that world to offer context and opinions—to translate, in a sense. So the three of them spoke to a group of museum professionals—50-plus folks, perhaps the largest crowd of any session that afternoon, which says a lot about the curiosity museum folks have for what goes on in that other world. They talked about their experiences and the issues and questions that they had encountered in moving forward. Andrew rounded the presentation out with a behind-the-scenes look at how to buy and sell at auction, how to hire an appraiser, etc. (Now if he could find an antiques trade event where he could offer the converse presentation: “An Introduction to the Museum World for Antiques Professionals.”)
Museum courses teach lots of things (much of it along the same lines, Hollie thinks, as what you learn while getting a master’s in library science: collections development, programming/education, administration, etc.), but dealing with the trade, arguably one of the points at which a museum and its collection are most vulnerable, is definitely not taught in most museum schools. We’re about 95% certain that it’s safe to go out on a limb and say “not taught in any museum schools.” (If we’re wrong—and we’d like to be—and some museum program is actively addressing interacting with the antiques trade, how the trade affects what happens in museums, and the wealth of information antiques tradespeople have to offer, please write and let us know!) We should not be surprised by this, however, because it’s actually totally possible to get a museum studies degree from some institutions without ever setting foot in a museum.
In fact nearly 15 years ago when Andrew was in graduate school it was made pretty clear through numerous anecdotes that to many in the museum community the trade was “less than.” (The expression “filthy lucre” was jokingly used.) When Andrew applied to various graduate schools for museum or American studies programs, he would have been open to museum work, but he knew that his desire to work with objects might make him much happier in the trade, in which he’d had an active interest for some time. He knew though—and was advised—that he should not emphasize an interest in the trade because it might be viewed unfavorably by admissions committees. And even today if Andrew had suggested the same panel topic with two other trade professionals rather than two museum folks, it likely would not have been given consideration. While he has occasionally felt a bit of a chill in a museum-related setting, he acknowledges that the Antiques Roadshow phenomenon has turned the work of dealers, auctioneers, and appraisers into a parlor trick, so that works in one’s favor. Pro tip: Never leave home without your ability to crush someone’s hopes and dreams about the value of their grandmother’s china!
The turnout and the questions at the panel were very gratifying and made it clear that perhaps the perceived chasm between the trade and museums, which has never been necessary, is narrowing or even nearing nonexistent. We mentioned the gap years ago in the sense that museums and the trade could learn from each other in ways that could help them court that apparently elusive younger crowd, but it also seems that cooperation between museums and the trade can be beneficial to them both in other ways.
Museums and their missions can benefit through important acquisitions, expert guidance in dispersing deaccessioned objects, and accurate, reliable appraisals rooted in real market values for appropriate collection management and insurance. Museums can also get access through the trade to subject-specific experts who can help shed light on collection objects (or whole subsets of collections). Auction houses employ subject-specific experts, for instance, and appraisers develop specialty knowledge from working with a large collection of similar objects. The trade benefits are more obvious—and perhaps that’s why it’s often been regarded with suspicion—paying customers. And, of course, every time any community, but particularly the small community of museums, historical societies, antiques shops, and auctioneers, collaborates to engage shared constituency, everyone becomes a more valued and integral part of that community, and the community in turn becomes richer for it.
We should also take a moment to point out that while the world often talks about “museums” as a large homogenous group as if they are all similar entities cut from the same cloth, often what’s meant are capital-M museums, iconic institutions—the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the various entities of the Smithsonian. The reality, however, is one in which those museums may be a huge percentage of the visitor numbers and the budgets, but they are a small percentage of the sheer numbers of organizations. It leaves us in a place where we act as if those solutions to storage problems at the American Museum of Natural History are the same as those available to or required by the Hennepin History Museum or Edwards Place.
Some of that diversity and cooperation was on display during Andrew’s evening in Detroit. Scott Wands, another friend and classmate who is the manager of grants and programs at Connecticut Humanities, scored tickets for a combination evening bus tour/progressive dinner incorporating three museums: the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Michigan Science Center, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Andrew could have spent the entire evening at the Charles H. Wright looking through its cornerstone exhibit And Still We Rise, which offers an epic journey from the ancient beginnings of humanity in Africa to the modern-day struggles of African Americans in Detroit. To say that he responded viscerally while walking through the hold of a slave ship is beyond an understatement.
The science center had a hard act to follow, but it offered an entertaining show in the planetarium before the tour moved on to the Detroit Institute of Arts, which has, of course, recently made headlines because of the city’s consideration of liquidating all or part of this world-class collection in an attempt to get the city’s finances under control. Fortunately, the idea never got far past the conversation stage, thanks in part to a national outcry.
The trade and the museum worlds are not that different. Small groups of well-intentioned people with great passion for the objects they collect and preserve work away each day in their own little corners to hold on to things that are important and to fill their lives and those of their patrons and customers with things that matter. When the country seems about to be torn down the middle, it was heartening to walk among so many iconic, exquisite works and realize that sometimes we can collectively remember what is important and act as one to save it.
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Originally published in the November 2016 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2016 Maine Antique Digest