Collecting 101: College Students on the Road to Acquiring Contemporary Art

In January, a group of seven students from Amherst and Mount Holyoke traveled with staff from the Mead Art Museum to eight art galleries in Boston and New York City.

In just over 24 hours.

Along the way, they talked to gallery owners, met an artist, and connected with an Amherst alum. They also stumbled unexpectedly on a bit of rock and roll history. But more on that later.

In addition to learning about the art-gallery world, students on the trip were able to see, in person, graphic works by several contemporary artists for possible acquisition by the Mead.

“Collecting 101: Acquiring Art for the Mead” is a four-day noncredit course open to Amherst students and others in the Five College Consortium (Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and UMass Amherst). A version of the course has been offered every year since 2009.

This year’s class started on Tuesday, Jan. 12, in the study room at the Mead. Students were greeted by print specialist and study room supervisor Mila Waldman, who began co-teaching the course in 2010, along with course founder Elizabeth E. Barker, director of the Mead from 2007 to 2014.

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Mila Waldman planned the itinerary of gallery visits for “Collecting 101: Acquiring Art for the Mead” and led students on the trip.

Financial support for the acquisition comes from the Trinkett Clark Student Acquisition Fund, set up in 2008 by H. Nichols B. Clark, widower of Trinkett Clark, the Mead’s curator of American art from 2001 until her untimely death in 2006.

Mr. Clark was founding director and chief curator of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst from 2001 until 2014.

In past years, the class made visits to artist studios around New England. This year, the Mead’s new director and chief curator David E. Little opted to take the class to galleries in Boston and New York, giving them, he said, “on-the-ground learning you can’t get in the classroom.”

Day 1

On the first day, students learn about acquisition criteria and procedures, and get a brief introduction to printmaking history and techniques. Mila leads off the morning session, followed by remarks from David about galleries and contemporary art. In the afternoon, Bettina Jungen, the Mead’s curator of Russian art, addresses the class. The students also look at prints acquired through the project in previous years.

Study room
Mead director and chief curator David E. Little (right) talks to students about what to look for when visiting an art gallery.

At the end of the day, Mila outlines the careers of artists whose works they’ll see over the next two days.

And even though it’s a noncredit class, the students receive a list of reading assignments.

They spend Tuesday night packing for the trip and reading.

Day 2

In the morning, Mila and her students, along with another museum staff member and a driver, travel by van from Amherst to Boston. It’s only moderately chilly and they encounter no traffic. An auspicious beginning.

Boston

First up is the Barbara Krakow Gallery, on Newbury Street in Boston. It’s a great introduction to the gallery world. Not only do students see works of contemporary art, but gallery partner and director Andrew Witkin gives advice that will serve them well throughout the trip: Look closely. Be as physically near the art as you can.

From there it’s on to New York. They arrive at the International Print Center New York (IPCNY) 20 minutes before closing time. It’s too late for a full tour, but they dash in and look around. They’ll return for a longer visit in the morning.

They check into their hotel in Chelsea and later, over pizza and pasta at Patsy’s Pizzeria, talk about what they’ve seen and learned so far.

Day 3

Chelsea

Chelsea is known as Manhattan’s gallery district. You can’t throw a stone without hitting one.

The first visit of the day is the oldest gallery on the “Collecting 101” itinerary: Pace Gallery. Founded in 1960, Pace has 10 locations around the world, including four in NYC.

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Pace Gallery

Next up, only a few doors down from Pace, is Loretta Howard Gallery, a special destination for the Amherst group since Loretta Howard graduated from Amherst College in 1983 and serves on the Mead’s Advisory Board. Her gallery specializes in abstract Post-War American Art. Here, students are joined by David Little. Over lunch at the gallery, Ms. Howard talks about the gallery’s current exhibition and a bit about her career trajectory, including what influenced her decision to major in art history (study abroad in Rome her junior year) and the style of art she loves best (Pop).

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Loretta Howard (center) shows students around her gallery, where an exhibition of paintings by Larry Poons is on view (January 7 – February 13, 2016).

From there, David leads the group next door to the James Cohan Gallery, where they watch a video-art installation before looking at prints with Mr. Cohan.

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James Cohan of the James Cohan Gallery

Nearby is the International Print Center New York, which they’d looked at briefly the night before. It’s a distinctive stop along the way because it’s “the first and only non-profit institution dedicated solely to the exhibition and understanding of fine art prints.” Students get a tour from a staff member and meet Anne Coffin, IPCNY founder and director.

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Listening to IPCNY founder and director Anne Coffin (right)

A few blocks away, they pay a visit to Yancey Richardson Gallery, which specializes in fine-art photography, a different kind of print.

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At the Yancey Richardson Gallery

Awaiting them at the next location, Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, is Amy Cutler, one of the artists the gallery represents. Everyone gathers around her as she shows them a selection of her work and answers their many questions.

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Artist Amy Cutler (right) meets with students at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects. Leslie Tonkonow stands next to Amy.

To reach their last stop of the day, the group returns to the van, happy to be off their feet for the 15-minute drive to SoHo.

SoHo

Their last appointment is at Diane Villani Editions, on Lafayette Street.

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Diane Villani at Diane Villani Editions

They encounter a crowd of people on the sidewalk outside the building, gathered around what turns out to be a makeshift memorial for David Bowie. He had lived on Lafayette Street since in 1969, and died at this address only a few days before, on Jan. 10.

Day 4

Back in Amherst, on the last day of the course, students reflect on the dozens of artworks they’ve seen. They need to quickly reduce the number of possible acquisitions to four finalists. The four they choose will travel to the Mead, and the students will present their top choices to an audience — primarily their fellow students — who will then vote for the winner.

To cap things off in the afternoon, they’re joined via Skype by Nick Clark, who initiated the Acquisition Fund. They enthusiastically tell him about their trip, giving brief versions of their presentations for the works they propose acquiring.

Conclusion

The group will meet again in February when the four prints arrive at the Mead. They’ll go over their decisions, and rehearse their presentations fully.

The four prints they choose will be on view, and students will deliver their presentations, at the Mead’s Gallery Gala on Tuesday, Feb. 23, at 7 pm.

— Sheila Flaherty-Jones

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