Blog / Building a contemporary collection

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By Wendy

How do you build a strong collection of contemporary art?

When Trevor Schoonmaker arrived at the Nasher Museum in summer 2006, he quickly learned that the contemporary collection barely existed. The museum had no endowment fund for acquisitions. This was an exciting–and daunting–opportunity.

As curator of contemporary art, Trevor took  a leading role in the development of the collection. He worked closely with Museum Director Kim Rorschach, the museum’s national Board of Advisors and its collections committee and Sarah Schroth, Nancy Hanks Senior Curator. He worked with several Duke alumni, all major art collectors who were eager to help. He drew from his relationships with artists, collectors and galleries.

The result is a collection from which the most important works are featured in “Building the Contemporary Collection: Five Years of Acquisitions,” on view through August 15. Trevor helps to explain how the collection, and this exhibition, fit into the global art world conversation.

Q: How does the Nasher Museum’s contemporary collection stand out among other art museums?
Trevor: I don’t know another art museum we could compare to the Nasher Museum because we are so young. After just five years, our contemporary collection already stands out in some interesting ways. Early on, we were among the first to support several artists who have since gone on to achieve greater success. We were excited to lead the way and support these artists through exhibiting their work and collecting it. We were one of the first museums to purchase William Cordova’s work, and I believe we are the only museum to have acquired his large-scale sculpture. Another example is Jeff Sonhouse. We were the first museum to purchase his painting. Barkley L. Hendricks is another example; we were the first museum since the ’70s to purchase one of his major portraits. We are the only museum to my knowledge to acquire one of his landscapes, and we’re the first museum to purchase his photographs. We also commissioned and purchased a series of photographs by Xaviera Simmons. We tend to make purchases from our exhibitions, and we’ve made it a point to focus on artists of African descent as part of our collecting mission.

Q: The Nasher Museum’s contemporary collection reflects the museum’s ongoing interest in the African diaspora. Since the museum opened in 2005, and going forward, exhibitions have featured global artists of color: “Something All Our Own: The Grant Hill Collection of African American Art” (2006), “Conjuring Bearden” (2006), “Street Level: Mark Bradford, William Cordova and Robin Rhode” (2007), “Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool” (2008), “Africa and Picasso” (2009), “Color Balance: Paintings by Felrath Hines and Alma Thomas” (2010) and “The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl” (2010-2011), and there are more upcoming shows. Trevor, you focused on emerging artists of African descent in your graduate studies and during eight years in New York, primarily as independent curator. You came to Duke and have worked closely with one of the preeminent scholars on the subject, Richard J. Powell. How unusual is it for a museum like the Nasher Museum to have this focus?

Trevor: It’s very unusual! Some museums have written in their mission to focus on artists from the African diaspora, but it is very unusual for a museum like ours with a much broader mission to focus on artists of African descent like we have. Certainly other museums have many works by artists of color, but it’s unusual for that work to make up such as significant percentage of a collection, as it does for the Nasher Museum. And since we do not exclusively collect works by artists from the African diaspora, we are able to situate these works in a broad international context within our collection. So you can see David Hammons next to Christian Marclay, or Kara Walker next to Marlene Dumas. One of the most important works in our collection is a 1990 installation by Fred Wilson, “Colonial Collection.” When his gallery installed it for me to see last year, I was blown away! I was totally blown away. I just couldn’t believe this work was still available at all! It is a pivotal work for Fred. It’s arguably the first work to articulate his practice as artist-as-curator.  Fred said he was waiting for the right fit. I’m just happy that we were in the right place at the right time. (The work is on view now. It is made up of insect vitrines, a jawbone, Mylar labels, prints, a skull, wood masks, flags and a wood and glass vitrine.)

Q: How does the Nasher Museum appeal to local audiences, while continuing to elevate its reputation worldwide?
Trevor: Our program is really carefully thought through. It’s a combination of scholarly and new research, contributions to art history, and presenting work that is both accessible and challenging. And our exhibitions speak to broad audiences. Barkley Hendricks is, again, a great example. Everyone who saw our painting retrospective of his work in 2008 fell in love with it. Another example is “The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl,” which opened here in the fall and travels to the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston next week. “The Record” included some difficult conceptual work, but because it engaged pop culture it gave people a hook,  a reason to walk in the door. In our exhibitions, we try to identify themes or artists that have wide appeal without dumbing down our program. We don’t want to be too esoteric, but we also don’t want to be too mainstream. We can show difficult work, but there are ways to help make it more accessible.  We always strive for that balance. We won’t do a show unless there is some newness to it, something new and significant that we’d be contributing. We always want to be pushing the conversation.

IMAGE: Trevor Schoonmaker, Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Curator of Contemporary Art, visits the gallery with artist Barkley L. Hendricks (right), whose 1975 painting, “Bahsir (Robert Gowens),” is behind them. The painting is part of the collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. (Fund for Acquisitions, with additional funds provided by Jack Neely.)

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