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Growing the Museum Collection


The Judgment of Solomon, a 13th-century reliquary; artist unknown

Last year, when Louise Ines Doyle ’34 gave the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) a sizable monetary gift, director Jessica Nicoll asked Brigitte Buettner, professor of art history, to go shopping in Paris for a work of medieval art for the facility's permanent collection. Buettner found an early 13th-century reliquary made of champlevé enamel on copper, with a scene of the Judgment of Solomon. The work was purchased by the museum and will make its debut in the fall.

The museum’s acquisition of the medieval reliquary -- a case in which relics are kept and displayed -- is one example of how new works come to be part of the SCMA's renowned collection of 23,000 paintings, sculptures and works on paper.

Other museum holdings are donated by alumnae, said Linda Muehlig, curator and associate director for curatorial affairs at the Museum of Art. One such prized example is a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, titled Pink Moon Over Water, recently given by Nancy Esterly ’56, one of three O’Keeffe paintings in the museum’s collection. Another, a painting by French Impressionist Camille Pissarro titled Old Chelsea Bridge, London, was donated by Hope Aldrich Rockefeller ’59 in 2002. The Pissarro is an important addition to the museum's already strong holdings from the French Impressionist period.

The growth of the Museum of Art’s collection is an ongoing process, explains Muehlig.  “The collection is not static, it’s a living thing," she said. "While we’re stewards of the collection, and we're committed to protecting, preserving and displaying the objects in our care, it’s also our responsibility to make sure the collection grows.”

As a college-affiliated facility, the Museum of Art is committed to maintaining a collection that remains useful pedagogically. “There are many ways that the works in our collection are used,” Muehlig says. “We are always looking to make this a better teaching resource.”

Coronation of the Virgin, an altarpiece by Bartholomäus Bruyn

Several years ago, former SCMA director Suzannah Fabing and curators compiled a five-year collecting plan in which they examined all the works in the collection to determine what areas and genres were in need of strengthening. Renaissance and Medieval art was identified as an area of need. The reliquary and a recently acquired Northern Renaissance altarpiece, The Coronation of the Virgin by Bartholomäus Bruyn helped address some of the collecting plan's objectives.

Every work of art, whether donated to or purchased by the museum, undergoes an approval process by the Curatorial Council, explained Muehlig. Pieces are considered for their quality, their teaching value, and their appropriate context within the museum’s collection. Purchases above a certain value, such as the reliquary and Bruyn altarpiece, undergo an extensive research and approval process.

Once acquired by the museum, works of art are displayed or studied. Curators make an attempt to incorporate new paintings and sculptures in the galleries after gifts are made. Light-sensitive works on paper, when not on display, are always available for viewing by appointment in the Cunningham Center. Also, visitors can make an appointment with Louise Laplante, collection manager/registrar, to see paintings and sculptures not currently on view.

“We try to make our works as accessible as possible,” said Muehlig.


6/1/07   By Eric Sean Weld
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