A Fifty-Year Perspective: Why a Permanent Collection for a Twenty-First-Century Museum of Contemporary Art

  • Peter Lipman

In an era of easy access to virtually unlimited images and background information about art, including exhibition catalogs, artist monographs, and other paper publications, along with online artist, gallery, and museum web pages, how does a museum and its audience benefit from retaining a permanent collection of artworks that incurs the substantial costs of acquisition, conservation, and storage?

Perhaps most important of reasons, images of art, even for multifaceted presentations such as 50X50, are incomplete substitutes for direct experience with actual objects. The textural richness of oil on canvas, shifting perspectives of sculptures from diverse angles, full range of color and tonality in photographs, and infinite variations generated by much new-media digital art are lost in reproduction. Additionally, artworks in a permanent collection can provide institutional identity and continuity for museum visitors. Visitors develop special rapport with favorite works on display, delighting in them during return visits and associating such pieces with the museum. For lesser-known and emerging artists, works entering a museum collection provide audience exposure and nurture growth and support for the art community. A broad permanent collection serves as a “library” from which the curators can discover novel interrelations between diverse works and organize creative exhibitions. A strong collection provides resources for negotiating needed exchange loans with other institutions. The collection can also record the museum’s history by acquiring outstanding pieces from its exhibitions. Without this, memories of ephemeral shows, however appreciated, become increasingly faint with time.

For such reasons, the San José Museum of Art (SJMA), although perhaps the youngest major art museum of a large American city, has assembled an increasingly strong and diverse collection of contemporary artworks, mainly during the past few decades. The historical growth of the collection, now numbering more than 2,600 works, can be tracked by comparing collection artists in the 50X50 publication with those included in landmark events during prior Museum anniversaries. After the Museum’s first twenty-five years (1994), only eight of these fifty artists were represented in the collection, mostly through small-scale works on paper. At the thirtieth anniversary of the Museum in 1999, the first broad exhibition drawn from the collection, Into the 21st Century, contained works by eleven of the 50X50 artists, again largely represented by modest works on paper (except for three oil paintings and two sculptures). Growth of the collection began to accelerate after completion of the Museum’s 1990s addition to its original home, the nineteenth-century post-office building that is now on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. Only five years later, the thirty-fifth anniversary celebratory volume Selections (2004) featured substantive works by twenty-seven of the 50X50 artists, along with other highly regarded artists. (Just among the sculptors are Alexander Calder, Stephen De Staebler, Viola Frey, Robert Hudson, Manuel Neri, and Richard Shaw.)

As summarized in 2004 by then-Chief Curator Susan Landauer, “The history of the collection shows a broadening scope . . . to a spectrum that includes regional, national, and international visual art of our time.”1 Fifteen years later, that spectrum and quality continue to grow, as exemplified by the additional artists featured in 50X50. The collection has also become more societally and globally diverse. In addition to some key donations, recent purchases have increasingly focused on major pieces by widely esteemed living artists including Diana Al-Hadid, Rina Banerjee, Tim Hawkinson, Jitish Kallat, Dinh Q. Lê, Alison Saar, Tabaimo, Diana Thater, and Leo Villareal, to name just a few. Looking to the future, worthy efforts will continue to augment the soul of a Museum that strives to provide innovative perspectives on the wonderfully diverse world of contemporary art.

  1. Susan Landauer, introduction to Selections: The San José Museum of Art Permanent Collection, ed. Susan Landauer (San José, CA: San José Museum of Art, 2004), xxii. ↩︎