Nasher Museum of Art


Visitors in the gallery, at the Nasher Museum, viewing the exhibition, Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore, 2012. Photo by J Caldwell


Collections expose the intersections of various disciplines, subjects, cultures, and time periods. Studying the history of collecting and the formation, management, and exhibition of collections may reveal changing trade routes or aesthetic preferences of a culture, the history of a political regime or psychology of a person, the emergence of new technologies or religious practices, the development of art markets or legal codes, or insights about the relationships between individuals, artists, and private and public institutions.

Motives for collecting range widely.

Some people collect for personal satisfaction. For example, Jason Rubell (T ’91) began collecting art to satisfy an urge to define his place and time. Art also helped Rubell to grapple with a family member’s death. Sisters Claribel and Etta Cone collected approximately 3,000 artworks and objects, as well as textiles, jewelry, and decorative arts by artists from unfamiliar cultures simply because they enjoyed and wanted to live with them. Doris Duke became a lifelong collector of Islamic art and objects after becoming enamored with Islamic cultures during her honeymoon trip to the Middle East and South Asia. She later built a home, known as Shangri La, in Hawaii to house her collection.

Other people become collectors because of their careers. Such was the case with the brothers Ernest and Joseph Brummer, who amassed a collection of medieval art as dealers transporting works from Europe to the U.S. The Duke University Museum of Art (the precursor to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University) was founded in 1966 with the acquisition of 200 works from Mrs. Ella Brummer, Ernest’s widow.

Still others stumble into serious collecting by chance. Paul Clifford, a businessman who had long been interested in ancient cultures and archaeology, started collecting objects in second-hand and antique shops in the 1950s. Then he met an elderly woman who was selling her nephew’s collection of ancient Peruvian artworks. Clifford purchased many of the objects for small fees. He went on to become a primary dealer of ancient objects from the Americas for private collectors and museums, amassing his own collection at the same time. Clifford donated more than 2,000 pre-Columbian objects to Duke University beginning in 1973.

Unlike private collectors who acquire art for myriad personal reasons, museums have formal, written policies about what, where, when, why, and how they collect. Look for this information on a museum’s website or in their printed materials. Many museums have digitized portions of their permanent collections, so try identifying the collection’s strengths and weaknesses and its evolution by looking at images online. For the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, check out the Collections, the Annual Report, or the Statement from the Director.

How do you look at a collection?

The questions you ask about a collection will depend on your interest, but it is helpful to think of a collection as a portrait of the collector, whether the collector is a private individual or a museum. Start by establishing information about the collector.

  • Who is/was the collector?
  • How, when, where, why did the collector begin collecting? What were/are the motives? What did/does the collector collect and from whom? Did/does the collector patronize the artist directly, go through a gallery dealer, or buy works at auction? What does the collector’s method of collecting reveal about the collection, if anything?
  • Was the collection built systematically or haphazardly? Can you detect a common thread across the collection by looking at it?

If you are looking at a private collection within an institution, such as a museum, consider the relationship between the collector and the institution.

  • Is the collection still private, or was it donated or sold to the institution? What do you think are some advantages/disadvantages to keeping a collection private?
  • If the collection is still owned and managed privately, why is it being exhibited publically in an institution? What is the collector’s relationship to the institution? How does the institution explain, or frame, the collector’s relationship to the collection and to the institution?
  • If the collection now belongs to a museum, what place does it occupy within the museum’s permanent collection? How, when, and why did the collection become part of the museum’s permanent collection?

If you are looking at a museum’s permanent collection, consider how the collection fits with the museum’s mission.

  • How, when, and why did the museum accession, or acquire, various parts of the collection?
  • How has the collection evolved over time? What works have been accessioned (added) or deaccessioned (removed)?  Why? How has the interpretation of the objects changed?

Examine the significance of the collection’s contents and context.

  • What narratives could you write about the genesis and evolution of the collection and the significance of its contents? What does the collection reveal about art, aesthetics, patronage, connoisseurship, economics, politics, history, psychology, trade, religion, human interaction, the role of institutions, law, science, etc.?
  • Within the specific context of the art museum, how has/does the collection and its objects contribute to a definition of art? (Does the collection fit with the traditional definition of “art” as painting and sculpture? Does the collection help to expand the definition of “art”? What types of objects and media are included besides painting and sculpture?)

Look for archival documentation, as well as catalogues, journal and newspaper articles, and academic publications while doing your research.

Want to know more?

Nasher Museum’s Collection

Exhibitions at the Nasher Museum


Berzock, Kathleen Bickford, and Christa Clarke, eds. Representing Africa in American Art Museums: A Century of Collecting and Display. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.

Bracken, Susan, Andrea M. Gáldy, and Adriana Turpin, eds. Collecting East and West. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.

de Marchi, Neil, and Sophie Raux, eds. Moving Pictures: Intra-European Trade in Images, 16th-18th Centuries. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2014.

Elliot, David. Art from Elsewhere. London: Hayward Publishing, 2014.

Elsner, John, and Roger Cardinal, eds. The Cultures of Collecting. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Gahtan, Maia Wellington. Giorgio Vasari and the Birth of the Museum. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2014.

Gahtan, Maia Wellington, and Donatella Pegazzano. Museum Archetypes and Collecting in the Ancient World. Boston: Brill, 2015.

Graham, Beryl, ed. New Collecting: Exhibiting and Audiences After New Media Art. Burlington: Ashgate, 2014.

Haskell, Francis. Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque. Revised and enlarged ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.

Levitov, Karen. Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore. New York: Jewish Museum; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Meyer, Karl E., and Shareen Blair Brysac. The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Molesworth, Charles. The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016.

Moustaira, Elina. Art Collections, Private and Public: A Comparative Legal Study. Cham: Springer Verlag, 2015.

Müller, Melissa. Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice. New York: Vendome Press, 2010.

North, Michael, ed. Artistic and Cultural Exchanges Between Europe and Asia, 1400-1900: Rethinking Markets, Workshops and Collections. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2010.

Ott, John. Manufacturing the Modern Patron in Victorian California: Cultural Philanthropy, Industrial Capital, and Social Authority. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2014.

Prose, Francine. Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Reist, Inge, ed. British Models of Art Collecting and the American Response: Reflections Across the Pond. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2014.

Rozell, Mary. The Art Collector’s Handbook: A Guide to Collection Management and Care. Farnham: Lund Humphries, in association with Sotheby’s Institute of Art, 2014.

Schroth, Sarah. The Evolution of the Nasher Collection. Durham: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2005.

Steuber, Jason, and Guolong Lai, eds. Collectors, Collections & Collecting the Arts of China: Histories & Challenges. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2014.

Stourton, James. Great Collectors of our Time: Art Collecting since 1945. London: Scala, 2007.

Thompson, Don. The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Thompson, Don. The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: Back Stories and Peculiar Economics from the World of Contemporary Art. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Films about art collectors and art collections

Black White + Gray. Directed by James Crump. New York: New Video Group, Arthouse Films, 2009.

Herb and Dorothy. Directed by Megumi Sasaki, 2008.

The Art of the Steal. Directed by Don Argott, 2010.

The Collector: Allan Stone’s Life in Art. Directed by Olympia Stone. Floating Stone Productions, 2007.

The Desert of Forbidden Art. Directed by Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev. New York: Cinema Guild, 2010.

The Next Big Thing. Directed by Frank van den Engel. Brooklyn: Icarus Films, 2014.