Tuesday, 24 June 2014



Over the last few weeks I have begun to look at how early print collections were valued and used. Several curators of founding museum collections wrote prolifically about their vision and the purpose of their collection for the public they served. In the next month, I am planning on looking at the history of print and drawing collections at several large institutions, including: the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET), The Art Institute of Chicago, and the National Gallery in Washington. So far, my research has focused on the MET and the first curator of the print department, William Ivins Jr. Ivins was the curator from 1916 to 1946 and wrote extensively about the history, purpose, and significance of print. I have found that publications by early curators are especially important for understanding a museum's collection. Ivins in particular was a driving force for expanding the MET's print collection in order to pursue his curatorial vision. 

Prints and Visual Communication (1953)
Prints and Visual Communication (1953)

One of Ivins’s first contributions to the Met's Art Bulletin in February 1917 is intriguing as he explains what he believes is his department's purpose and significance. Ivins recognized that "the print is the only form of original pictorial art with which the greater public ever comes into intimate contact. Paintings, drawings, tapestries, and enamels are not for the poor, and neither is any of them available for more than one man's house at a time, but the print can be struck off ad nauseam". Ivins's appreciation for the multiplicity and 'unoriginality' of print (particularly in relation to a culture that belonged to the larger population who consumed these images) is reflected in the activity of his department and the exhibitions he produced. He was intrigued by printed images as a vehicle for visual communication and believed this could be used as a way to connect with museum audiences. In Prints and Visual Communication (1953), Ivins states that his experience has led him to “the belief that the principal function of the printed picture in western Europe and America has been obscured by the persistent habit of regarding prints as of interest and value only in so far as they can be regarded as works of art" (Ivins 1953, 33). In much of his work he acknowledges this issue and the subjectivity of taste that is involved in valuing one print as a work of art, while disregarding another. I believe this issue persists in the print collections of contemporary museums. My next task is to contrast the perspectives of founding curators with those of contemporary print curators to see how the vision and purpose of their departments has changed. 

1 comment:

  1. Sounds really interesting! Especially since you are concentrating specifically on print culture.
    How did you come to select the institutions listed in your post? (AGO, MET, NGW, AIC)