WCMA Teaching the Collection, Photo by Elizabeth Leitzell

Building a Teaching Collection

The great cycle of intellectual life at a college art museum.

It often starts with a classroom question and a professor who recognizes both how often the issue now under consideration arises and how important it is to the class. Pretty soon, that professor is in discussion with our staff, ideas are hatched, shows planned, acquisitions made, and the great cycle of intellectual life at a college art museum is in full swing.

Teaching museums simply do differ from than their municipal cousins…and this is particularly clear when one looks at the acquisitions process. All art museums find more high quality artworks than they can afford to buy; the issue is how to decide which of the many great works should enter the collection. For a teaching museum, the decision to acquire a work of art results from a complex matrix of factors. We, like all art museums, start with quality and uniqueness—what John Walker, former director of the National Gallery, called “the rare and the beautiful.” But we consider also the cultural relevance and historical significance as they predict the teaching potential of objects for both present and future generations of students, faculty, and community members.

At issue for a teaching museum is not just an artwork’s worthiness, because frankly there are many more worthy objects available than we can or should collect. But rather a series of curricular concerns that are addressed once the artistic merits of a proposed acquisition are established: Will the work see the light of day in the Rose Study Gallery as part of a class? Which classes are likely to make use of the work? And, finally, are the issues that pertain to this work enduring? We have high expectations for the art we collect. Not only must it be of exceptional quality, and that does come first, but they must be of great utility to the teaching mission of the college. The art works that enter our collection must be “rare and beautiful,” yes, but they also must be relevant and significant.