Richard Rand of the Clark Art Institute

Curator Discusses Improving a Great Collection

By: - Mar 14, 2011


There has been a steady stream of news releases from the Clark Art Institute regarding major renovation projects, touring exhibitions, a Pissarro show in Williamstown this summer, as well as newly endowed curatorial positions, and the planned deaccession of a Renoir valued at $15 million.

The mid sized museum is regarded as one of the finest and most richly endowed in the United States. In addition to its collection with depth in French Impressionism and Old Masters the Clark has one of the foremost libraries, conservation, and research programs. In partnership with Williams College it has a master’s program in curatorial studies. It also hosts a number of annual visiting scholars and colloquia.

From lectures and films to the Met Live in HD the Clark is a major cultural resource for the Northern Berkshires. It is about to undertake its next phase of expansion which will increase visitor amenities. Currently the lobby serves as bookstore and café. There will also be additional exhibition space. Recently the museum opened a new conservation center and exhibition space The Stone Hill Center by Tadeo Ando who is designing the next phase of the expanded campus. 

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art recently announced two endowment gifts totaling $4.5 million in recognition of the achievements of the Clark’s curatorial department. A $2.5 million gift establishes the position of Robert and Martha Berman Lipp Senior Curator and a $2 million gift endows the position of the Sylvia and Leonard Marx Director of Collections and Exhibitions. In 2007 a gift from the Manton Foundation endowed the position of Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs currently held by Jay A. Clarke. With these gifts the Clark realizes the goal of endowing all three of its senior curatorial positions. The Robert and Martha Berman Lipp Senior Curator position is currently held by Richard Rand, who also serves as Curator of Paintings and Sculpture.

The Clark is deacessioning a rarely exhibited Renoir Femme cueillant des Fleurs (Woman Picking Flowers) It depicts Camille Monet, the first wife of Renoir’s fellow impressionist Claude Monet. The painting estimated to be worth $15 million is being offered at TEFAF Maastricht, the world’s most influential art and antiques fair.

Recently we spoke with the museum’s senior curator Richard Rand about implications of the sale of a Renoir. We were particularly interested in the ethical guidelines of such transactions. In a time of financial pressures there have been reports of museums and universities selling works of art to cover debts and pay for bricks and mortar.

As Rand assured us this is not the case at the Clark which is proceeding by the book. The intention is to improve the collection while remaining consistent with the vision and mandates of the founders Sterling and Francine Clark.

Rand also discussed the Pissarro exhibition which will be on view this summer. It will be the focus of another article.

Charles Giuliano Would you describe the importance of this picture. (Renoir’s Femme cueillant des Fleurs (Woman Picking Flowers)

Richard Rand Sure. It’s a lovely painting from the early Impressionist period. The painting is usually dated to the early 1870s. He kept it in his collection and exhibited it in the 7th impressionist group exhibition in 1882. It was shown later. It’s a very nice painting for all of those reasons. In the context of the Clark collection it was what we might call a redundant picture. As you know we have many Renoirs and several from that period. It’s a wonderful picture that in recent years we have rarely shown.

CG The subject appears to be unique and in that sense is hardly redundant. It’s a rare image of Camille Monet.

RR We have another Renoir of Camille Monet showing her reading. In an interior. So in that sense we have another version of her. The model.

CG There are images of Camille in the oeuvre of Monet.

RR There are quite a few. She was his first wife. He painted her on a number of occasions.

CG For me the most unique one is the painting he created of her deceased.

RR On her death bed. That’s an incredibly moving one. In the Musee d’Orsay.

CG As I recall it’s one of the ones that has the estate stamp and that he didn’t sign himself.

RR I can’t tell you off hand but it may be.

CG It kind of makes sense.

RR A lot of those pictures he kept throughout his life. After his death they put that stamp signature on the paintings in the studio.

CG If the painting sells for $15 million what are the gaps in the collection which would be of interest to you?

RR The money will be used for new art.

CG Is there anything you are looking at specifically?

RR There is nothing out there which we are interested in at this point. It would be held and used at the appropriate time. I can’t really say. We are very interested in Post Impressionist. We’ve been acquiring from the early  19th century and some Old Masters. It probably wouldn’t go for another impressionist picture because we are so rich in that area. When you build a collection like this where the quality is so high and there is such character no matter what you think you might want you’re surprised. A wonderful picture in a category you might not have thought about might appear. And it is perfect and that’s what you go for. We have some general ideas of earlier periods. And in the post impressionist period which we would like to think about. You have to wait and see what comes up and be opportunistic in the market place.

CG Some years ago the Museum of Fine Arts acquired Jackson Pollock’s “Troubled Queen” (1945). Because the MFA was weak in that area I was surprised to see it. Reading the wall label it said “Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection and by exchange.” The museum did not make an official announcement of the acquisition. Through investigation I reported that they exchanged two Renoir’s “Girl Reading” and “Girl with a Red Bonnet” a Monet “Landscape at Jeufosse” as well as cash. It seemed like exchanging apples for oranges. After publishing my findings Ted Stebbins, the curator who arranged the acquisition, told me that the museum should publish all deaccessions in the annual reports. You are being transparent. But having such depth in Renoir and Monet would seem to give museums quid pro quo powers when it comes to negotiating loans for exhibitions. I don’t recall how many Monets the MFA has, perhaps 36 to 37.

RR They have a lot.

CG The Clark has 33 Renoirs and now 32. The museum might say we don’t show them all. Because of market fluctuations you have a painting that you do not often display that can bring $15 million. Can you discuss generically how museums view collections as a liquid resource? What are the ethics? The Rhode Island School of Design owned Picasso’s “La Vie” (1903) which they deaccessioned. It is now owned by the Cleveland Museum. In hindsight you say, hmm, that wasn’t very smart.

RR They would probably say that too.

CG You always have to take a long view of such transactions. Looking today at the MFA’s Pollock one would say, yes, that was a smart acquisition. It was the right thing to do at the right time. Can you discuss your philosophy regarding reducing an area of strength to build up an area of weakness?

RR Sure. I think you’re right. There are certain policies and practices that all museums adhere to or should. The AAMD guidelines state the principle that any funds raised by the deaccession of art must be used to acquire new art. That goes without saying.

CG We would like to say that.

RR Yes, in most museums that is professionalism in these matters. Of course there are exceptions and we know about them and they make news when they happen. Because it is so egregious.

CG I guess we are talking about the University of Iowa and Pollock’s “Mural.”

RR Yes, there’s that and the Rose Art Museum. Yes there are those examples but I am sure you agree that the great majority of museums adhere to these principles. To improve the collections the money is used to acquire new art. In that sense we are not looking at collections as liquid assets.

CG The Clark for a museum of its size has great resources. We are in an economic climate where many smaller museums and universities are looking at collections as assets. In the case of University of Iowa they have a single work worth $150 million which they want to sell to establish a scholarship fund for art students. Some years ago the Fuller Museum of Art (Brockton, Mass.) faced liquidation. They sold works to survive and today the institution exists as the Fuller Craft Museum. Had they not sold those works the museum would not exist today and they faced sanctions at the time. So these are complex issues. There are museums that can adhere to the ethical guidelines and other museums are facing conundrums.

RR That’s probably true but certainly not the case with the Clark. To go back to your apples and oranges those are things that come up in large museums with very diverse collections. At the Clark it is hard to find apples and oranges it’s European and American art from the Renaissance to the early 20th Century with a great focus on the 19th century. The curatorial staff is all of a group so the apples and oranges analogy really doesn’t apply. Believe me we think a lot about the character of the collection and the taste of Mr. and Mrs. Clark. Their legacy, and that has certainly been one of our guiding principles. This particular picture which has not been on view here for many years. Not since I’ve been here. It was in storage and we have 32 Renoirs that cover this period that are more important and more beautiful. And we have interest in building around the impressionist collection so that makes sense.

CG Speaking of the great Renoirs in America what comes to mind immediately is “Luncheon of the Boating Party” at the Phillips in D.C. The Clark has 32 Renoirs. Of that what percentage would you say are A list Renoirs?

RR “Sleeping Girl with a Cat.” That’s one of my favorites. The picture “At the Concert” with the two women. “The Onions” while not typical is one of the very best in terms of a work of art. We have many great ones “Madame Renoir Reading” the “Bather.” I like the blonde bather but there is the other one as well. It’s not the largest collection in America. Albert Barnes bought many more. The Clarks bought better pictures.

CG How would you rank the eye of the Clarks? Renoir appears to have been their favorite artist.

RR Homer too. If you look at the paintings but also the water colors and drawings as well. It’s actually a much larger collection than the Renoirs. They focused on artists they loved and collected in depth which is what gives the collection its character. In terms of Renoir they had a great eye but they bought whimsically. There are pictures we have which are not as great as other pictures which we have. That’s typical of enthusiastic private collectors who buy a lot and have very personal taste. So we do have pictures which don’t merit being shown with the great pictures in the collection all the time.

CG Did Steven Clark collect impressionism?

RR Sure but he tended to focus on Post Impressionism and early modernism.

CG He owned Cezanne’s “The Card Players” (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and van Gogh’s “Night Cafe” (Yale).

RR You remember the show we did a few years ago.

CG Of course a fabulous show and what a story about the brothers.

RR Steven had half a dozen Renoirs. He didn’t really collect Monet.

CG It seems that Steve was the more adventurous collector.

RR It’s a matter of taste and perspective. From our point of view and having learned the standard history of modern art I suppose one could say that. But for his time Clark, our Clark, Sterling Clark was pretty adventurous. At the same time he was buying Renoir, Monet and Winslow Homer he was also buying Gerome and Boldini, Alfred Stevens, and that kind of thing which was very unfashionable, but which now is deeply loved and important and he recognized that. The 19th century was much more diverse than the old histories of modern art would suggest.

CG Wasn’t Gerome’s “The Snake Charmer” actually his father’s picture?

RR It was his father’s picture. It was bequeathed to one the brothers and he sold it. So Sterling was able to buy it many years later in the 1940s at auction. But he had other Geromes and academic things, the Bougereau.

CG Perhaps  I am wrong and you can correct me but I thought that Bougereau, Gerome and Alma Taddema was the taste of the time when they were collecting. It lapsed and is now being brought back.

RR My point is that he was doing both at the same time which was very unusual. Most collectors did one or the other. He saw both and liked and could appreciate both sides. That was in fact very advanced taste. Many museums don’t have the academic paintings because they were not thought to be a part of the standard telling of the 19th century and now they would kill for those things.

CG The other night I was commenting to Michael Conforti (Director) that the Clark seems to have such depth in the academic art that I was trained, through modernism, to hate. It is what the impressionists and the Salon des refuses revolted against.

RR No, it’s great. It’s all fashionable now and they teach it in school. Our Bougereau “Nymphs and Satyrs,” signed and dated to 1873, one year before the first impressionist exhibition, is fantastic. You could go on and on about diversity and conflicts. Who the impressionists were struggling against.

CG There’s a bit of Dr. Strangelove in this as in “How I learned to love the bomb.” Taste changes. But the feminists who teach those works hold them at arms length as examples of orientalism, and colonialism.

RR They has the same issues with impressionism.

CG Gerome’s “The Slave Market,” any way you slice it, is a pretty offensive picture.

RR I agree.

CG I actually asked a previous Clark curator about it and how he slept at night to which he responded “perfectly fine.”

RR Yeah, I sleep perfectly fine.

CG Most people just walk by. But if you stop and look you wonder what’s going on there. It’s a deeply troubling image.