The Golden Formula at Work

Art history didn't even exist as a discipline when Adelia Field Johnston, Oberlin's first dean of women and a professor of medieval history, began engaging her students in discussions of the art reproductions she brought back from Europe. Yet her forays into the exploration of art as an intellectual endeavor were shared by self-taught and omnivorous collector and educator Charles Fayette Olney. Inspired by Oberlin's ethos--he once noted that the College "invariably stood for the loftiest ideals in human character"--Olney gave Oberlin more than 8000 objects in 1903, laying the foundation of the College's now world-renowned collection.

Dudley Peter Allen, Class of 1875, a College trustee who had been a student of Johnston's, donated funds for the construction of a building to house Olney's gift. He died before the Allen Memorial Art Museum--the first college museum west of the Alleghenies--opened to the public in 1917, but his widow, Elizabeth Severance Allen Prentiss, continued to support the museum throughout her life. Gifts for the purchase of art, along with the occasional donation of individual works, helped the collection grow during the museum's first quarter century. And then came R.T. Miller, Jr., Class of 1891.

Each year from 1940 to 1958, Miller gave $25,000 to the art department and museum staff, stipulating only that the funds be spent within the year to purchase art objects. Miller also directed his estate to endow a fund for art purchases, a fund that continues to contribute to the acquisitions program. What was different about Miller's gifts, besides their size, was that they allowed the acquisitions process to become a strategic enterprise. Under the directorship of Charles Parkhurst, those possessed of the expertise to choose works of both high quality and intellectual rigor appropriate for a teaching collection were given the freedom, not to mention cash, to do so.

AMAM director Anne Moore characterizes Miller's acknowledgment of the faculty's expertise as "the Golden Formula. That's why we have the collection we have today," she says.

Very nearly encyclopedic, the AMAM's collection is particularly strong in 17th-century Flemish and Netherlandish paintings and art objects of the 1960s and '70s. The former can be attributed to Wolfgang Stechow, professor of fine arts from 1940 to 1972, whose scholarship remains among the most perspicacious in that field. The latter is most certainly due to the inimitable Ellen Hulda Johnson '33, professor of art from 1948 to 1977 and honorary curator of modern art, whose early championship of contemporary artists shed light on the legitimacy of their work.

Just as the current collection was formed along the lines of the faculty's expertise and the College's curriculum, so is tomorrow's being formed. However, today's acquisitions committee--comprised of four art-department faculty members, the museum's curatorial staff, its director, and an outside distinguished museum professional, a position currently held by Cleveland Museum of Art director emeritus Evan Turner--cannot labor with the financial freedom of the past. Inflation and an expanded art market make any significant works of art more costly today than ever before. Hence, if the committee members are to acquire high-quality works with limited funds, accessions must be even more carefully planned. They must consider how a particular piece can enhance the collection--does it fit with other items in the collection, does it fill out an area in which the collection is lacking, does it say something other pieces do not?

The other side of the accession coin is, of course, deaccessioning. Moore is not averse to culling irrelevant material from the collection, and neither was the special commission. Still, both agree that the collection must not be viewed as a monetary resource, and that all funds derived from deaccessioning should be returned to the AMAM for new purchases.

"Art is not about property, it's about ideas," asserts Moore. "Legitimate artists aren't creating works of art to turn a buck. They're doing it to express ideas. If a work has become valuable as property, it's because other people recognize it as a significant touchstone to our collective heritage.

"Museums are repositories of ideas, of culture, of civilization. Here at Oberlin we have an extraordinary slice of that."

--Cynthia Nickoloff '88