Private Into Public

How Collectors/Benefactors Became the Object

By David De Boer with edits by Mary Coyne

In April of 2013, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it would acquire–effective immediately–the entire collection of cubist art amassed by cosmetics tycoon Leonard Lauder. (1)

Eager to showcase its hard fought prize, the museum displayed several of the more salient pieces within days after the gift became public knowledge and preparations went into effect for a comprehensive exhibition of the collection within the next few years.

Such fanfare is not out of the ordinary when art collections pass from the individual who is responsible for their very existence to an institution. Unified gifts of multiple objects are often commemorated in the forms of exhibitions, the re-naming of or even construction of a new gallery, wing or even museum to house the new acquisitions.

The transition from private collection to public display is highly significant not only in the initiation of new politics of display but also for the collection’s identity as such. This essay, while recognizing the political dynamic of the collection as site, reframes the discussion in terms of considering the collection as a cohesive body, imbued with its own meaning, value, and function apart from its contents. (2)

Since the sixteenth century, private collections have served two distinct purposes—that of contributing to a material glorification of their owners’ social and political significance as well as functioning as tools for authority through the development of personal knowledge. (3)

Although these wunderkammen, or “cabinets of curiosity” were intended largely for private appreciation, they, from their very origins, held a significant communicative function that only became enacted through exposure to visitors outside of the owner and his elite inner circle.

Where the reputation of princely collections spread through an ongoing “grand tour” by European aristocracy, scientific minded collectors utilized mechanical reproduction to communicate. (4)

Doctors like Giovanni Battista Olivi and naturalists including Ulisse Aldrovandi published large bound catalogs containing printed reproductions of the objects they held in their private collections and analysis of the findings made from their close study. (5)

These volumes formed the basis for the modern practice of the publication of exhibition catalogs. In the late sixteenth century, Duke Cosimo de Medici relocated his extensive collection of jewels, decorative and rare objects and art by preeminent Renaissance masters (products of Medici patronage) to the Uffizzi office buildings he had commissioned in 1560. (6)

Although this transition was by no means populist, the “public” that would have been allowed admittance to the galleries would not have included the average Florentine working man or woman—it did create a wider audience than the selected visiting nobles or scholars who would have been invited into the family’s palazzo.

More importantly, the uffizzi, or offices, were the regular meeting place and public center for the merchants and bankers with whom the Medici would engage in daily transactions and from whom they had amassed their fortune. (7)

For the Medici, the exposition of their collection to the public, which remains one of the greatest unified groupings of art to this day, served a complex function. (8) In addition to their art collection, the Medici also founded the first “public” library in Florence, commissioning Michelangelo to design a reading room and archive at the Benedictine monastery of San Marco in Florence.

Applications of a Marxist argument that is quick to draw comparisons of the Imperial triumphs of Ancient Rome can be (and have been) drawn here. (9) As Dale Kent has argued in her extensive biography of Cosimo de’ Medici, the expansion of the family’s private book and art collections was founded more on a goal of civic improvement with democratic access than unabashed self-glorification.

It is important to emphasize how the collection’s liberation would have been understood by the Florentines, the action reassured them of their access to an experience, a place previously assumed to be solely that of the Medici.

It was not the experience of coming face to face with the Botticelli’s Primavera, a work that because of its previously cloistered status would have been unknown to the populace, but rather the significance of this experience created by a shared social value placed on the collection as an object.

The collection, where before existed more loosely, as a list of objects ornamenting the Medici palace now took on an identity of a unified collection, drawing as much on its provenance as property of the preeminent banking family as on the uniqueness of each individual it contained.

As Tony Bennett highlighted in The Birth of the Museum, the de-establishment of sovereign rule in the latter half of the seventeenth-century birthed what we know today as the public museum—typified by the unveiling of the royal collection in the Louvre palace. (10)

Bennett’s central argument, that this sudden civic “generosity” masked a Foucaultian agenda has existed prominently below the surface of much of the debate surrounding Eli Broad’s influence on MOCA and Los Angeles as an art center. (11)

As recent criticism indicates, the public is wary of an individual’s decisions to contribute positively to a formulation of the city as an artistic center. Since Bennett’s writing in 1995, the subsequent institutionalization of the liberal critique that it employed has seemingly laid bare an understanding that the democratization of a private collection inherently supports the social class system that allowed for its original amalgamation.

In his seminal book The Quadruple Object, Graham Harman argues for an understanding of the world through an “object related philosophy.” (12) Harman holds that there are properties of all objects inherent to themselves, existent over and above their relationship to other objects. For him, this suggests the opportunity for more fluid boundaries, even, paradoxically, the liberal ideals of social and political freedom. (13)

By analyzing the collection as an object with which we may engage in different ways and through different systems and functions, we can move beyond an automated response generated by two generations of institutional critique who maintain a definition of the collection as an intrinsic element in the power structure inherent in art’s production, display, and criticism.

Harman’s theories allow for a reconsideration of art collections as objects—outside their relation to the individuals who formed them, the specific pieces of which they are composed or the social functions to which they contribute or enact. This revision supports a perception of the collector as an individual that, in being detached somewhat from his relationship to the art collection itself (in that neither is defined by the other) is potentially less accusatory, likewise, the function of the art collection to the general public diminishes that of two separate entities with the potential for any myriad of different relationships than a pre-formulated set of social cues.

Yet as easy as it is to apply the critiques of liberalism to institutions and collectors past and present, I find it more pertinent here to consider how the collection can function as an object. By analyzing the process of a more contemporary transition of a private collection that has been gifted as a unit to a national museum, it is possible to understand it as an indefinable unit in addition to it as a socio-political site.

Okwui Enwezor would describe this as the process of globalization, which has removed the vantage point of observing culture. (14) His essay, “The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition” describes how spatial distance that was previously separated, has now been dissolved due to the geopolitical configuration that defines systems of production. Modern and contemporary art are then framed by art history that is rooted in imperial and postcolonial discourses.

It is in this “constellation,” or site that an understanding of the historical orders that configures the relationship between political and social spaces that are in a continuous state of redefinition can occur.

One example of this transition is idealized in the basis of modernism, in what can be referred to as tribal influence. In the controversial 1984 exhibition, Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) curator William Rubin juxtaposed tribal artifacts with Modernist cubist artworks, explaining in an essay published in the exhibition catalogue,“Primitivism is an aspect of the history of modern art, not of tribal art.” (15)

The exhibition’s highlight was the Pablo Picasso painting, Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) which, Rubin argued, emphasized the influence of tribal art, and ultimately positioned Western identity as all encompassing. (16)

James Clifford, critically addresses this issue in his essay “Histories of the Tribal and the Modern,” criticizing MoMA’s attempts to classify and reclassify primitive and modern art into one matrimonious experience.

Calling attention to the formal coalescence of MOMA’s exhibition, Clifford criticizes the efforts of Rubin’s forceful classification of tribal artifacts that positions tribal art into a modern aesthetic experience, rather than its original connection to the ancient anthropological past.

If the collection is to be accepted as a specific site, or rather, one whole object, then it becomes critical to address the gifting of Leonard Lauder’s cubist collection to the Metropolitan Museum as something more than transformative.

Having been afforded the opulence to collect art since childhood, Lauders gift to the Met includes thirty-three Picassos, seventeen Braques, fourteen, Légers, and fourteen works by Gris. History shows that these Cubist artists in Lauder’s collection developed their style from studying the artwork of Cézanne in addition to Rubin’s argument in Primitivism that emphasized tribal influence.

By analyzing and incorporating into the pictorial space a “ruining” of semiotic awareness of primitive cultures, Cubist artists not only abstracted the objective world but also idealized the imperialistic process of calling claim on primitive culture through an aestheticizing process. (17)

Beyond the appealing tax breaks that sophisticated strategic giving garnished by decades of conservative rule has granted the wealthiest U.S. citizens, Lauder’s gift represents a continuous transitional purpose like that of the Medici family in the sixteenth century.

Meaning, his perceived authority over culture, like the perceived authority over primitivism the Cubist artists in his collection represent, affords Lauder a “princely” reputation in addition to championing post-colonial idealism.

As Jacques Lacan would suggest, this “mirror stage,” a process that turns oneself into an object affords Lauder the opportunity to be fascinated with himself while representing a permanent structure of subjectivity. (18)


1. Carol Vogel, “A Billion-Dollar Gift Gives the Met a New Perspective (Cubist),” New York Times, April 10, 2013, Arts Section, A1.

2. My use of the term “site” refers to Miwon Kwon’s iconic definition of site-specificity. See Miwon Kwon, “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” October 80 (Spring, 1997): 85-110.

3. Giuseppe Olmi, “Science-Honour-Metaphor: Italian Cabinets of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe, ed. Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 6-10.

4. The practice of making extended trips across the continent to form, strengthen and subvert political alliances would be echoed, abet more frivolously in the proverbial Grand Tour of Henry James, Henri-Marie Stendhal, Thomas Cook in the nineteenth century.

5. Giovanni Battista Olivi, De reconditis et praecipuis collectaneis ab honestissimo, et solertissimo Francisco Calceolari Veronensi in Museum adservatis. Also see discussion in Olmi, 6.

6. In addition to their art collection, the Medici also founded the first “public” library in Florence, commissioning Michelangelo to design a reading room and archive at the Benedictine monastery of San Marco in Florence. Jeremy Norman & Co., Inc., “The First Public Library in Renaissance Europe,” Jeremy Norman’s From Cave Paintings to the Internet: Chronological and Thematic Studies on the History of Information and Media, (accessed May 4, 2013).

7. Renaissance art historian Dale Kent has argued that the Medici’s occupation as bankers is inextricably tied to their interests and actions in art and patronage. Dale Kent, “The Rise of Collecting in Renaissance Florence: Cosimo de’ Medici and His Sons,” The Frick Collection Website florence_cosimo_de’_medici_and_his_sons (accessed May 4, 2013).

8. Giovanni Ruchali, a Florentine banker competitive with the Medici in patronage and in business, is often quoted as stating the intentions behind his commissions as “for the glory of God, the honor of the city and the commemoration of me.” Ruchali quoted by Kent in “The Rise of Collecting in Renaissance Florence: Cosimo de’ Medici and His Sons,” The Frick Collection Website’_medici_and_his_sons (accessed May 4. 2013).

9. Leo X’s papal triumph of 1519 is notable for its deliberate imitation of Roman emblems and themes. See Dale Kent, “The Rise of Collecting in Renaissance Florence: Cosimo de’ Medici and His Sons,” The Frick Collection _florence_cosimo_de’_medici_and_his_sons (accessed May 4, 2013).

10. Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (New York & Oxon:Routledge, 1995).

11. Dr. Nizan Shaked states, “rather than choosing to strengthen one of the city’s existing institutions, Broad . . . opted to add another museum that will carry his name, taking control over urban-scale design decisions while receiving rebates from public monies.” Dr. Nizan Shaked. “Something out of Nothing: Marcia Tucker, Jeffrey Deitch and the De-regulation of the Contemporary-Museum Model, Art and Education Online, (accessed May 9,


12. Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object (London: Zero Books, 2011).

13. Harman sets up this argument against liberalism in a February 2012 interview with Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan. “Graham Harman’s Object Lesson (Episode 4),” interview by Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, Podcast, Cultural Technologies, Feb 15,


14. Okuwi Enwezor, “The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition,” Anatomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity, ed. Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, Nancy Condee (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).

15. Michael Brenson, “Gallery View; Discovering the Heart of Modernism,” New York Times Online, Michael Brenson, “Gallery View; Discovering the Heart of Modernism,” (accessed May 6, 2013).

16. By “all encompassing”, I mean to convey Rubin’s argument that it has the power to subsume any and all aspects of specific culture under an umbrella term.

17. Victor Grauer quotes Jacques Derrida, calling the Cubists’ segmentation of the pictorial stream as “ruining the notion of the sign at the very moment when . . . its exigency is recognized in the absoluteness of its right.” Victor A. Grauer, “Passage from Realism to Cubism: The Subversion of Pictorial Semiosis,” Art Criticism, Volume 13, No. 2, 1998.

18. As the French psychoanalyst suggests, psychoanalysis can help us figure out where we went wrong. Jacques Lacan “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001) 1285-90.

N.1. this text courtesy of DIADEM by Cavendish Projects

N.2. copyright the author

N.3. follow the author at @deboerandstock on Twitter

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