Smith College began collecting original works of art in 1879, only four years after it enrolled its first class. Initially, President L. Clark Seelye bought works of contemporary American art, often directly from the artists themselves, believing that students should be familiar with the art of their own time. American art has remained one of the collection’s core strengths. By the early twentieth century, Alfred Vance Churchill, the Museum’s first director, had expanded the collecting sphere to include European art.
At the request of the College’s trustees, Churchill formalized the Museum’s collecting guidelines in 1920. These involved a “concentration plan” that focused on the modern era, which he defined as beginning with the French Revolution. His plan emphasized the importance of acquiring works of high quality, while recognizing the instructional value of preparatory studies and unfinished works that show an artist’s working method. Guided by this plan, the Museum assembled important holdings of French art of the nineteenth century, including superb works by Edgar Degas, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, and others.
The plan was revisited in the early 1990s, and acquiring works by women artists and artists of color became a collecting priority. In the last decade, the collecting plan has significantly expanded to include African, Islamic, and, particularly, Asian art to support the College’s global curriculum.