Legacy Collecting and Collections at Princeton | Director's Letter Summer 2018

In 1948, Marga Barr—wife of Alfred Barr, Princeton Class of 1922, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art—asked David and Peggy Rockefeller why they had decorated their New York home with so many pictures of “little men in red coats.” This derisory remark about the Rockefellers’ collection of hunting art resonated with the collectors, even as it initially offended them. David Rockefeller, grandson of the founder of Standard Oil, later wrote in his memoirs: “Peggy and I were taken aback by her bluntness and more than a little annoyed but, upon reflection, had to admit the art on our walls wasn’t of great caliber. We decided then and there to place more emphasis on quality in our purchases.” That decision led, under Alfred Barr’s advice, to the assembly of one of the great collections of modern art, which as I write is in the process of being auctioned, likely to become the most valuable sale of a single collection in history. Featuring extraordinary works such as Claude Monet’s Water Lilies in Flower (1914–17), Henri Matisse’s Reclining Odalisque with Magnolias (1923), and Pablo Picasso’s Young Girl with a Basket of Flowers (1905), the collection reveals that the Rockefellers bought with what proved to be exceptional taste at a time, immediately following World War II, when many great works were available.

Few have the financial capacity of the billionaire one-time chairman of Chase Manhattan, but the sale of the Rockefeller collection is a vivid reminder of how important private collectors have been and remain to the tastes of the times, the fortunes of artists, and the holdings of museums. Indeed, when I tour visitors through our galleries, one of my most persistent themes is how much our fate as a museum has been tied to the tastes and generosity of generations of Princetonians and other friends. The three great paintings by Claude Monet in the Museum’s collections—at least one of which is likely a stop on the typical tour of our galleries—each came to us as a gift from a private collector who had purchased it at a time when Monet represented the leading edge of art collecting. The collection within a collection assembled by Henry Pearlman that has been in our care since 1976 acts as a kind of autobiography through collecting, the greatest surprise of which may be that Pearlman began with what may be the most difficult artist in the collection, Chaïm Soutine.

Many of the finest collections at Princeton trace their origins to the acts of single individuals. The Museum’s photographic holdings are widely admired for their range and depth but would likely not exist without the passionate curiosity of David McAlpin, Class of 1920, the collector who made the inaugural gift of art and money that launched Princeton on the path of serious engagement with photography. Our collections of the art of the ancient Americas—which include one of the most important collections of Indigenous Mesoamerican art in the world—owes much of their brilliance to the legacy of Gillett Griffin, the Museum’s longtime curator in this area. Not only did Gillett acquire our foundational holdings in these areas, but at his death in 2016 he also bequeathed to us his personal collection of more than 3,500 works of art.

Gillett’s remarkable life and generosity reminds us that such possibilities—and such acts of philanthropy—continue in our own time. The recent bequest from our longtime friend Duane Wilder, Class of 1951, which I discuss elsewhere in these pages, is further evidence both of a life well lived and an exceptional individual of eclectic tastes who wished to make a further mark on the museum he had loved most of his adult life.

Our galleries are liberally sprinkled with the evidence of the passion of collectors. This summer’s exhibition of the radical printmaking experiments of Frank Stella would be unimaginable without the loans from our great friend Preston Haskell, Class of 1960. And the fact that we have in our care what may be the finest collection of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat can be entirely attributed to one couple, Lenore and Herb Schorr, Graduate School Class of 1962 and 1963, who befriended Basquiat early in the artist’s career and showed an audacity for collecting remarkable for the time.

The latter example—a collection assembled on an academic’s salary—reminds us that while great wealth may be a boon to collecting, it is not a prerequisite. At a time of extraordinary prices in the art market, what still makes it possible to collect is the audacity to purchase to one’s personal taste, against the market, where value is still to be found. Whether in the world’s legion local and regional auction houses—now easily discoverable thanks to various online auction tools—or in galleries or craft shows such as Princeton’s own Morven in May, objects worthy of living with for a lifetime are readily found. Perhaps inspired by what you see in our galleries—if not the example of David and Peggy Rockefeller!—I hope each of you will come to think of yourself as a collector whose life can be enriched by personal relationships with art.

James Christen Steward
Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director