Art Collecting, Nation Making

By Joy Wang, ’16

It was January 1832, and Alexis de Tocqueville was, to put it mildly, unimpressed. After his weeklong stay in the nation’s capital, the conclusion of a yearlong tour that would produce his famed Democracy in America, Tocqueville’s assessment of the fledgling capital was dire.

Forty years before, Tocqueville observed, the planners of the city of Washington had envisioned a metropolis of millions and a city that “would be the hub of the Union’s internal and external commerce.” But “[t]he population didn’t come; vessels did not sail up the Potomac. Today, Washington presents the image of an arid plain scorched by the sun, on which, scattered here and there, are two or three sumptuous edifices and five or six villages that constitute the city. Unless one is Alexander or Peter the Great,” Tocqueville opined, “one should not get involved in creating the capital of an empire.”

Dim as his judgment was, such a charge was hardly unwarranted. Among the capitals of the Atlantic world, Washington—estranged as it was from the cultural and commercial capitals of Boston and New York—was peculiarly provincial, even something of a cultural backwater.

But this comparison with the artistic life of the Old World accounts for some of the relative underdevelopment of American public culture, and museum culture in particular, at the midpoint of the nineteenth century. America, which had neither the institutionally-chartered acquisitiveness of church and monarch nor the stable patronage of the great families of the European aristocracy, was reliant to a much greater degree upon the loan or bequest of the holdings of one or several prolific private collectors in establishing its first public galleries.

In this regard, there are few cities whose transformation has been more striking or important than our nation’s capital, nearly all of whose museums were established between 1870 and 1950. A plurality of these institutions were formed from the collection of a single philanthropist or family—think of the now-defunct Corcoran Gallery, the Freer/Sackler Galleries, and of course, Dumbarton Oaks itself.

For the past two years, Dumbarton Oaks has convened a Wintersession course, “Culture and Power: Art, Philanthropy and Diplomacy in America,” exploring these themes. And for the first time this summer, a team of four interns (of whom I am one) is diving deep into world of turn-of-the-century museum history in the first year of the Mapping the History of Cultural Philanthropy Internship.

Through a series of a dozen case studies of D.C.-area cultural institutions—from the earliest attempts to transform William Wilson Corcoran’s painting collection into a national gallery to Andrew and Paul Mellon’s successful establishment of the National Gallery of Art—we’ll be exploring the ways in which the collecting philosophies and aesthetic preoccupations of private collectors in the D.C. area influenced and continue to shape the educational missions of the museums and galleries that they helped to found.

The transformation of the nation’s capital from the “arid plain” of Tocqueville’s recollection to a vibrant cultural center is one that was decisively shaped by the tastes, vision and passion of a circle of collectors, dealers, historians, and artists, who sought—in ways as eclectic as their interests—to bring the arts to a nation for which artistic enlightenment was essential.

In Democracy and America, Tocqueville had worried that the fragile institutions of self-government in America were especially susceptible to the tyranny of an intellectually conformist democratic majority. A century later, Duncan Phillips (of the eponymous Collection) feared the social consequences of that same tendency towards conformity, this time to the “-isms” of the turn of the century: “When art was for the church it had an educated public. When art was for royalty the court and its academies set the superficial standards. Now that art is on the town the academy of the public and its enlarged electorate in artistic affairs represents the public lack of taste.”

To be sure, there are few museums today that would take so lofty a view of their own ambitions. But this vision of art as both a respite from and central feature of public culture is an inescapable one, and these questions—of who chooses how we think of art and aesthetic value, how the appreciation of art, from the Great Masters to Asian pottery to abstract expressionism, matters for citizens and their nations—are lively ones for a nation still in the making.


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