Toward a Broader Conversation

Mildred Bliss shows the Byzantine Collection to L. Gard Wiggins, Administrative Vice President of Harvard University, and Francis H. Burr, Fellow of Harvard College, 1963.

Mildred Bliss shows the Byzantine Collection to L. Gard Wiggins, Administrative Vice President of Harvard University, and Francis H. Burr, Fellow of Harvard College, 1963.

By Elizabeth Keto ’18, intern in Outreach and Public Programming

My internship at Dumbarton Oaks this summer involves researching the variety of public programs offered by cultural institutions in Washington D.C. and identifying the types of program that could be most successful here. This work is only a small part of a long-term effort in the Director’s Office to develop a set of educational programs that will both enrich the intellectual life of Dumbarton Oaks and further enable the institution to share its resources with the community.

One of the projects I’ve been most involved in so far is the planning for Dumbarton Oaks’s second annual Wintersession course for Harvard undergraduates. The program examines the intersections between art, money, and power, with a focus on the history and practice of philanthropy. My own work on the project has ranged from combing back issues of The New Yorker for articles on the great American collectors of the Gilded Age to helping design the course’s social media component. I’ve enjoyed putting the past in conversation with the present—reading a 1951 profile of the millionaire art dealer Joseph Duveen and then a 2015 article on the record-setting Picasso painting that sold for $179 million this May, for instance.

This research into the history of collecting, selling, and giving art in the United States has prompted me to ask questions that I’ve found difficult to answer and—for that reason—endlessly fascinating. Who or what determines the value of a work of art? Does a work of art have some intrinsic value beyond the price set by the market? If I know that a painting cost $179 million, does it change what I see when I look at it? As I’ve learned the stories of philanthropists like Dumbarton Oaks’ founders Mildred Barnes Bliss and Robert Woods Bliss, I’ve also wondered about the relationship between museums or academic institutions and the art market: to make a work of art an object of scholarship is, after all, to give it legitimacy and value. Is disinterested scholarship possible? Are public museums democratic institutions or conspicuous expressions of the donor’s wealth and prestige? How can museums become truly accessible resources for the communities around them?

Joseph Duveen profile

A New Yorker profile from 1951 about Joseph Duveen, who became a millionaire as an art dealer who purchased art from European aristocrats and sold them to wealthy Americans.

The question of how to render museums like Dumbarton Oaks more accessible resources is deeply meaningful to me. I am a prospective History of Art and Architecture concentrator, and as I think about the rich collections here, I am reminded of a discussion of Rembrandt’s portraits by the art historian Didier Maleuvre. Maleuvre writes, “Their humanity is the humanity we give them…The portrait lives not by internal combustion, but in the same way the human face comes alive, in the precise degree to which it is encountered.” The objects and landscapes of Dumbarton Oaks become vivid, meaningful records of human culture and memory only when they are encountered, when they are topics of conversation. I hope that my work this summer helps open the conversations that occur here to a wider community of students, teachers, and thinkers.

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