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BlogBack: Middlebury’s Richard Saunders on Why Object-Rich Museums Should Share (not sell) the Wealth

Richard Saunders, director of Middlebury College Museum of Art and professor of art history

Richard Saunders, director, Middlebury College Museum of Art and professor of art history

Prof. Richard Saunders, who in November invited me to speak to a general audience and (on the following day) to his museum studies class at Middlebury College, responds to Hispanic Society, Metropolitan Museum, Middlebury: One Institution’s Trash Is Another’s Treasure:

I totally agree [with my “Trash/Treasure post]. As the director of a small “collections-poor” college museum, I am always pained when a collector decides to leave his/her collection to a major museum, as we all know most of it will go into storage and some of it is very likely to be sold.

Sold by Metropolitan Museum at auction, bought by Middelbury College Museum: French Gothic figure of Saint Barbara, 16th century

Sold by Metropolitan Museum at auction, bought by Middlebury College Museum: French Gothic figure of Saint Barbara, 16th century

An even greater lament is that many of these collections-rich institutions make it difficult for teaching museums, such as ours, to borrow works in storage. Some just say no; others say, sure, and then require a hefty loan fee. Somewhere in these exchanges, the spirit of sharing works and the importance of their original purpose and meaning gets lost in monetary transactions.

Since most of us in the museum world know that the vast majority of collections remain in storage, rather than on public view (and not just light-sensitive works that justifiably spend much of their life in the dark), why isn’t there a greater wish to share our collective artistic heritage?

As I write this, I am in Tucson and looking forward to a visit tomorrow to the University of Arizona Museum of Art and the chance to visit their 26-panel “Retablo of the Cathedral of the Ciudad Rodrigo” by Fernando Gallego:

Fernando Gallego, "Christ and the Samaratan Woman," 1480-88, 1961 gift of Samuel Kress Foundation to University of Arizona Museum of Art

Fernando Gallego, “Christ and the Samaritan Woman,” 1480-88, gift (in 1961) of Samuel Kress Foundation to University of Arizona Museum of Art

It is fantastic, but would it be on view at the Metropolitan or another museum blessed with greater riches? I doubt it. It is here in Arizona because of the vision of the Samuel H. Kress Collection. If only there were an contemporary model for such enlightened sharing.

Kress not only left major works to the National Gallery, but dispersed the remainder of his collection among numerous regional institutions––many of them college and university museums. His requirement––the works must always be on view.

While this is not a condition most museums would accept today, I am sure if such largesse appeared on our museum’s doorstep––along with a similar level of quality––we would jump at such an opportunity!

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