Collector: What's in a word?

September 8, 2014

I spoke about being a collector this past spring in a public conversation with Professor Edward Sullivan of NYU. It took place at the Frick Museum’s Center for the History of Collecting at the invitation of the Center’s Director, Inge Reist, among a crowd of fellow collectors, art historians, and enthusiasts. The gathering gave me the opportunity to reflect not only on what it means to be a collector, but on the word “collector” itself. I wondered aloud if there might not be a term more appropriate for expressing the responsibilities inherent in collecting; “collector” has the unfortunate connotation—for me, at least—of a vestigial sense of colonial privilege: the idea that cultural territory is there for the taking; that the pleasure and power of ownership are the focus.

Historically, there have been collections whose purpose has been sheer accumulation; others whose sole interest has been market gain; and, most sadly of all, some whose goal has been to gather together the artifacts of a culture in order to destroy it. My husband Gustavo and I have always strongly believed in the primacy of stewardship, with its implicit obligation to care and advocate for our collections during the brief time they are in our hands, and to plan for their future. Education, preservation, conservation, and publication have been paramount to our mission, along with a robust lending practice to museums and other institutions that allows the collections to be seen by many people in varied and vibrant contexts. As the decades have passed, it has been enormously satisfying to see that these efforts have resulted in a deeper understanding of Latin American culture, and of the individual objects in our care. I have grown along with the collections, thanks to the works of the artists included, the curators and historians and educators with whom I have been so fortunate to work, and my fellow collectors.

After the talk at the Frick, a member of the audience approached me and pointed out the contrast between the Spanish term “coleccionista” and its English counterpart “collector”. I found it an illuminating observation: the former more nearly approaches the sense of devotion and dedication I feel; the latter seems only to point to an almost mechanical process of amassing objects. Perhaps it’s just something that gets lost in translation.