Acquiring the art world’s biggest names: Lyman Allyn added to its collection
The fact that the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, a small but notable art institution in New London, has recently acquired works of renowned artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney and Nan Goldin — artists who have impacted the direction that art has taken over the 20th century — is no small feat.
All of these are currently on view in the Lyman Allyn exhibition “What’s New? Modern and Contemporary Art at the Lyman Allyn” — a show that boasts 32 contemporary and modern pieces representing a variety of subjects and styles. They were selected from a collection of more than 200 pieces that the museum has acquired through donations over the last two years.
It’s worth exploring how an esteemed but relatively small private museum like the Lyman Allyn could acquire such valuable works.
Exactly how that happened can be credited to private donations and to museum director Sam Quigley — a man who, before taking his position with the museum in 2014, worked as a vice president of collection management at the Art Institute of Chicago and, years prior to that, as a director to collections at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Quigley, as with other Lyman Allyn directors who have come before him, has an interest and expertise in modern and contemporary art that is invaluable — an interest that has helped shape what the museum has acquired.
The Lyman Allyn, as it is with museums the world over, receives the majority of its new art through donations, a necessity that stems from limited financial resources.
To put things into perspective, the Lyman Allyn functions on a limited budget that largely relies on endowments, grants and funding.
Typically, the Lyman Allyn’s operational budget hovers around $800,000 per year and can fluctuate depending on revenue from one year to the next. The museum’s acquisitions spending budget, which is financed annually through an endowment, sits under $100,000.
According to Christie’s, the eminent auction house, a typical photograph by Nan Goldin costs between $40,000 and $200,000. Even at the low end, a Goldin like “Suzanne and Philippe on the Train, Long Island,” currently on display at the Lyman Allyn, would significantly deplete the museum’s spending budget.
Such issues have prevented museums from acquiring the few masterpieces left out in the world (as was the case in November with a $450.3 million Christie’s auction of a Leonardo da Vinci), leaving them unable to vie against the world’s wealthiest art collectors.
Even the largest institutions are struggling to compete. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2007 that the acquisition budget for the Metropolitan Museum of Art is approximately $30 million per year. Though that number is exorbitant compared to the Lyman Allyn, that budget must be spread over the Met’s 17 curatorial departments. A purchase in one department totaling $1 million won’t leave much room for other departments to acquire works.
Suffice it to say, most of the works currently on display at the Lyman Allyn are donations, as well as the majority of its 18,000-plus item archive.
But the process in which a museum is able to receive such large donations doesn’t just happen by luck, especially when art collectors could just as easily auction off their works, pieces that, at least in the context of what the Lyman Allyn has recently acquired, could sell for tens of thousands.
Donations are often the result of a years-long process between museums and regional art collectors. In this case, Quigley can largely be credited for such accomplishments, and in terms of the “What’s New” exhibition, Quigley has primarily worked with four collectors — Anthony and Elizabeth Enders of Waterford; Karen Ganz, an alumna of Connecticut College; and Louise McCagg of Stonington. Notably, 22 of the 32 pieces on display in the show come from the Enderses, and the bulk of the pieces given overall were bequeathed in 2015 and 2016.
Besides cultivating an amicable relationship with collectors, the director may offer his or her expertise in, say, East Asian sculpture, to help them expand their own palettes in the same field. In turn, those collectors, a director hopes, may later consider donating some of their own works to the museum.
“Gifts don’t just happen out of the blue,” Quigley says. “One works with collectors over a lifetime as they buy and acquire what they like. It’s a two-way conversation. Certainly, the collectors are acquiring for themselves, but it’s nice when a museum person can provide a little bit of influence on that.”
But the largest question comes down to why a collector would choose to donate rather than auction off their works?
For Quigley, the argument lies in the fact that, by donating, pieces won’t only be physically preserved, but their ideas and their beauty will also touch future generations. It’s about the love of the art and preserving that art. But it is up to him to convey that to potential donors, which, in this case, he dutifully has.
“(Our donors) are helping us achieve what we think is an important goal, which is to provide food for thought and visual delight and intellectual stimulus in the world of modern and contemporary art for our community,” Quigley says. “I think they have very pure and altruistic goals which is to share with a larger public their own passion for this work. I really, truly believe it.”
If you go
WHAT: "What's New? Modern and Contemporary Art at the Lyman Allyn"
WHERE: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London
WHEN: Through April 1; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun.
ADMISSION: Adults, $10; seniors and students (over 18), $7; students under 18, $5; active military personnel, $7; children under 12, free
CONTACT: (860) 443-2545, www.lymanallyn.org
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