How Art Collectors gave Rise to Modern Day Museums and Public Galleries

An art collector should be aware of the historical process that shaped the collecting tradition. Fundamental knowledge of the history behind art collection can better inform a collector’s curating decisions, so that he may create a more influential art collection. History shows that the act of collecting art has continued to have powerful implications to the history of art, with the main one of them being the advent of modern art museums. Curiously, while art collection may seem as a highly elitist movement driven by minoritarian ultra rich and powerful classes, it has actually culminated in the democratization of art as museums made it available to the masses.

Awareness of these important historical implications also help us create a better projection of how art collection is going to evolve and assume new shapes in the future, what roles it is going to play in society and in the world of art itself. This knowledge sustains a more critical and intellectual attitude towards art collection. 

The first registries of art collection can be traced back all the way to the dawn of the greatest ancient civilizations, such as Egypt, Babylon and great Eastern powers such as China and India where art was accumulated in temples and sanctuaries, mostly tied to the figure of a religion or a great ruler. For as long as there were rulers, governments and kingdoms, art has been withheld as a symbolic display of power, limited to a small number of royalty members.

Speeding a bit forward to the Renaissance we find art collections becoming a family business that is passed down the generations. Influential families around Europe had outstanding collections containing antique sculptures and exclusive art pieces. Within this scenario, an art market began to grow and expand in all directions. Studios for restoration of ancient art began emerging with new forms of art resulting from their efforts. 

It was during the 18th century, amidst the Renaissance that the trend of donating art collections began to popularize in Europe. Noticeable collectors such as Maria Ludovica, the grand duchess of Tuscany decided to gift her entire family’s collection to the state of Tuscany. Other great European collectors followed Ludovica in a movement that gave rise to some of the greatest museums ever founded.

With the rise of the industrial revolution, the bourgeoisie saw a sudden increase in the middle class with its disposable income and latent interest in investing in the arts. With the art market heating up and booming, a growing number of Americans became interested in pursuing great collections and dealing art. These Americans often traveled to Europe to gather great works of art and eventually saw themselves following the same European trend of turning private collections into museums. Thus, during the 1870s, great museums like the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore were made possible. 

This American movement set a definite trend which boiled down into an art market that gave birth to hundreds of private museums by prominent collectors. Art collections continue to be influential change-makers in the world of art. In contemporary times more people become collectors and the concept of collection expands into the digital as we see an expansion of people’s relationship with art that is becoming ever more intimate and idiosyncratic.

Written by Yasmim Franceschi exclusively for sooqbeirut
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