Our perception of the role of private collectors has become inverted as the art market has risen from hidden community to global industry. Commentators now regularly sneer at “vulgar oligarchs” who are believed to collect only as an ostentatious display of wealth. Instead, museums as agents of the “public trust” are presumed to be better advocates and trustees of art and art history.
Those notions ignore the central role of individual collectors in accumulating and preserving works that are not recognized. Terry Teachout has an interesting take on this idea in his essay on William Paley’s collection which is now part of travelling show on loan from MoMA.
What’s interesting here is that Paley was far from being a visionary and yet he played an important role that would be to MoMA (and the public’s) great benefit:
As for his vaunted “taste for modernism,” it seems decidedly unadventurous, even safe, when viewed from the anarchic vantage point of 2013. Dazzling though his collection is, Mr. Paley’s taste lacked the strong, unpredictable individuality of a more idiosyncratic connoisseur like, say, Duncan Phillips, whose private collection now forms the basis of Washington’s Phillips Collection, America’s first museum of modern art.
That said, it’s worth remembering that Paley bought his first great painting, Cézanne’s “Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat” (1875-76), nearly 80 years ago, at a time when other captains of industry still thought it madly daring to spring for an early Monet. For virtually all of Paley’s art-loving contemporaries in the business world—not to mention the American public at large—great art meant Old Masters, period. As MoMA’s William Rubin explained in his preface to the 1992 catalog of “A Taste for Modernism”: “In the middle 1930s, when William Paley bought his first painting, there were relatively few collectors of modern art—and nothing chic about possessing it. . . . Few dealers handled works by the pioneer modern masters, especially in America.” Indeed, Mr. Paley bought “Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat” not from a dealer but from the artist’s son.
A TV Titan Who Loved Modern Art (Wall Street Journal)