Why We Have Curators and Collections Managers

Times are tough and many museums and historic sites wonder about the value of keeping curators and collections managers on the payroll.  What do they do besides sit in their offices all day?  Well, boardmembers and CEOs, they keep an eye on your most valuable assets.  The University of California Berkeley, that fine institution of learning, provides a useful lesson on what happens when you don’t have curators or collections managers involved in managing your artifacts.  According to the New York Times:

Everybody misplaces something sometime. But it is not easy for the University of California, Berkeley, to explain how it lost a 22-foot-long carved panel by a celebrated African-American sculptor, or how, three years ago, it mistakenly sold this work, valued at more than a million dollars, for $150 plus tax. The university’s embarrassing loss eventually enabled the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, a large museum and research center in San Marino, Calif., to acquire its first major work by an African-American artist.

Fortunately, there’s a happy ending to this tale for the object, the artist, and the museum–but the university has egg on its face. First, for not recognizing and properly caring for a significant work of art and secondly for disposing of it for so little money. I’m not surprised. Most colleges and universities are notorious for treating their historic sites and museum collections poorly (have we forgotten about the University of Southern California’s long mistreatment of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Freeman House or Cal Poly Pomona’s neglect of Richard Neutra’s VDL House?).

For the complete story, see “Berkeley’s Artwork Loss Is a Museum’s Gain” by Carol Pogash in the New York Times (February 20, 2012) and Huntington Library Acquires Sargent Johnson Monumental Depression-Era Sculpture in Black Artist News (June 22, 2011).