Photography in Smaller Museums

When the firestorm around the proposed closing of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University started to swirl around (admirably led by Modern Art Notes), as a photography collector, one of the first questions I had, which I didn’t see asked anywhere else in all the discussion, was what exactly does the Rose have in its collection in terms of photography? The only mention photography got at all that I could see was a protest letter from photographer David Maisel, whose work is in the collection.

Of course, there is no easy way to get a simple answer to this question. Like many smaller museums, the Rose does not have its complete collection digitized and up on the Internet, nor does it have a stand alone photography curator who can be contacted. There have been few photography exhibitions at the Rose in the past years, so there is not much of a trail that can be followed in this way either. The only real way to answer this question is to button hole the Director (not practical in this situation), or perhaps find a willing trustee or accessions committee member who is excited about photography and has some information.

This got us thinking in a broader way about the photography housed in smaller museums. In the vast majority of cases, photography is one of many disciplines represented for these institutions, and so images that are in the collections are often stuck in the black hole of storage, rarely seeing the light of day. Even when photography is seen as a crucial part of the exhibition and education plan, and photographs are part of the normal rotation of shows, they still may not get the kind of focus we would like to see. As collectors, we are, of course, fascinated by what any individual museum might have in its storage boxes. Who knows what treasures are hiding there, underappreciated?

With this in mind, we have begun a process of reaching out to various smaller museums (in American and all over the world) to ask these very questions about their photography collections. We’ve designed a simple set of routine questions (sent via email) that cover the following areas:

Photography Collection Facts
Photography Collection Design
Accessing the Collection

Our goal here is to develop profiles of the photography collections at smaller museums and to bring those profiles to you, our audience of collectors. We think this benefits everyone. The museums get the word out to a targeted group of people who are interested in their collections and can be supporters, patrons, and even contributors on a going forward basis. (One important question we ask is what the museums are looking to add to their collections on a going forward basis; this information can help match potential donors with museums that want their prints.) On the other side, the collectors get a better view into museums that hold works or have programs that they are interested in, so they can visit or get involved as appropriate.

Later today, we will begin this series with a profile of the photography collection of the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. If you are a museum curator, trustee, or accessions committee member out there (anywhere in the world), or simply a supporter of a particular museum and would like to see that institution profiled as part of this series, just send us an email ([email protected]) and we’ll get the questionnaire out to you. We hope everyone will find these profiles as interesting as we do. There are literally hundreds of small museums out there with amazing photography collections, and we want to be a strong voice in getting the word out about what they’re up to.

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One comment

  1. Rudy Perpich /

    Thank you, this is the type of information I’d love to have about museum photography collections nationally, especially information on what photography donations museums would like.I greatly appreciate the time and care you put into your blog.With appreciation and admiration,Rudy Perpich

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