Framing History: Sacha Kolin in The Rose Art Museum's Permanent Collection (Part 3 of 3)

From the mid-1960s, campus museums acquired hundreds of Kolins, including 32 artworks at Brandeis University's The Rose Art Museum. The University's announcement on January 26, 2009, later modified, to deaccession its art collection generated fervent commentary. In this three-part series Framing History, Lisa places the academic museum in historical context, explaining the economic policies and social factors that fueled the explosive growth of campus museums in this era, and highlighting the archival records generated by the museum community. This is part 3 of 3. (Click here to read the original announcement, here to read Part 1, and here to read part 2).
Example from The Rose: Tracing Special Situations. 
As mentioned, I wrote to each of the twenty museums listed under "Museum and University Collections," in the Everson catalog. I learned that Sacha's artwork in university permanent collections is vulnerable for reasons other than by auction sale. Of the ten university collections listed in the catalog, three museums could not locate their Kolin holdings. One museum retained a monumental painting but had removed it from permanent display. Two universities had closed; one gave its Kolins to other universities, one of which did not retain the gift. Only one university museum of the original ten had deaccessioned her work.

Of the original ten universities, three campus venues confirmed owning a handful of Kolin works. And then there is The Rose. Thirty-two works survive. Since 1973, ten additional university museums received Kolins, including the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Cornell University through the artist's estate. Several museums continue to incorporate Kolin artworks in scholarly exhibitions. Her sculpture Cathedral stood regal in "Aftermath: Solace in Art" at the Miami University Art Museum in 2002. Today, Sacha's work resides in over 110 collections, of which 30 are museums (for further details, click here). 

Another resource for tracing the provenance and disposition of artwork is auction house records. Sources for sales results include the auction house; auction house catalogs; databases of records from numerous auction houses such as Art Sales Index or Artfact; the seller; and the buyer. My biography is named in homage to Sacha's 90 x 68-inch painting Look Up, The Sun Is Shining. The original owner, a museum, told me that the artwork was sold at auction. The prominent auction house had no record of its sale. Years later, through my Sacha Kolin website, I was contacted by the painting's current owner, a former employee of the auction house. He had bought Look Up in a post-sale, private transaction with his employer.

Fig. 4 Look Up, the Sun is Shining, 1964, painting, 90 x 68 inches; photo: Michael Grassia; private collection. Reprinted, by permission from Michael Grassia.

I found instances of unclear title of ownership (ex., a donor or the artist dies before transferring title, hence known as "unaccessioned"); conflicting information (ex., an appraisal record for a sculpture not found in the collection as described); and unrealized dreams (ex., a maquette received for a large-scale sculpture was never funded). Papers from multiple sources need to be crosschecked and verified.

A related issue is accessibility, how the repository's collection is arranged and described to facilitate access. I found Sacha hidden in exhibition inventories and reviews within the papers of her friends and colleagues. The collections were either unprocessed, or arranged and described at the series folder level (ex., Correspondences, A-K) instead of at the item level (ex., Kolin, Sacha, ASL, July 1, 1965). There was no meaningful access point providing a key name or term (ex., Hannes Beckmann, Color Theory). Without a finding aid or other access tool, I uncovered fragments of Sacha's past by studying the originals of relevant collections.

The major expansion of university museums in the 1960s and 1970s contributed to the cultural transformation of the era. The Rose and other campus museums built during this period flourished in part because of the generosity of their patrons and the ingenuity of their artists. Sacha Kolin survived through art sales to collectors and donors and also, garnered prestige from her museums list. Without near heirs, by placing her work in academic museums, she also sought to preserve her legacy in perpetuity. Even with the artist's best intentions, perpetuity proved to be tenuous.

Family historians may apply the strategies outlined here to any occupation, and to conduct cross-disciplinary studies. Historical context, economic policy, and social factors are critical aspects of our research. Institutional records and specialized archives and libraries are underutilized resources. And yet, to facilitate access, the work of arranging and describing collections begins at the repository level. 

Perhaps that is a small consolation of Brandeis University's possible deaccession of The Rose collection, placing its art records and donor files under scrutiny. The research and documentation process, for instance, to locate a donor in the case of a restricted gift, would be part of the difficult and complex situation for the University and The Rose community, the donors and their heirs, and the artists and their legacies.

Selected Sources:

  • Bracker, Milton. "Tax Deductions on Donated Art To Get Closer Federal Scrutiny," New York Times, January 17, 1962, p. 1.
  • Bryant, Edward. "The Boom in University Museums," ARTnews (September 1967): 30-47 and 73-75.
  • Campbell, Colin. "Art Donors Facing Stricter Tax Rules," New York Times, July 2, 1984, p. C11.
  • Davie, Maurice R. Refugees in America: Report of the Committee for the Study of Recent Immigration from Europe. New York: Harper and Row, 1947.
  • Ernst, Jimmy. A Not-So-Still Life. New York: Pushcart Press, 1984.
  • Grant, Daniel. "Is the University's Museum Just a Rose to be Plucked?," Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2009.
  • Gruen, John. The Party's Over Now: Reminiscences of the Fifties—New York's artists, writers, musicians, and their friends.  New York: The Viking Press, 1967,
  • Harmon, Lily. Freehand: An intimate portrait of the New York art scene in its golden years by a remarkable woman who lived, loved, and painted it. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.
  • Kolin, Alexander. "Recollections—encounters with scientists, successes, and failures," Electrophoresis 4 (1983): 1-19.
  • Levy, Julien. Memoir of an Art Gallery. Boston: MFA Publications, 2003.
  • Myers, John Bernard. Tracking the Marvelous: A life in the New York art world. New York: Random House, 1967.
  • "New Smithsonian Chief Sees Technological Future," Los Angeles Times, February 17, 2009.
  • O'Doherty, Brian, Ed. Museums in Crisis. New York: G. Braziller, 1972.
  • Pollock, Lindsay. "Critics Blast Brandeis Plan to Close Rose Museum, Sell Artworks,", January 29, 2009. 
  • Ritchie, Andrew C. The Visual Arts in Higher Education. College Art Association of America, 1966.
  • Sacha Kolin. Catalog to exhibition (September 4-26, 1973), Everson Museum of Art. Syracuse, NY: Everson Museum of Art, 1973.
  • Thaler, Lisa. Look Up: The Life and Art of Sacha Kolin. New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 2008.
  • Thaler, Lisa. "Researching Public Archival Collections and Indexing Personal Family Papers," Avotaynu (summer 2002): 11-16. Editorial comment, 46.
Special thanks to Christian Marc Schmidt for his assistance with the images.

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