What is American Art?
The Colby Museum’s new guidelines embrace a pluralistic, inclusive definition
A newly updated acquisitions policy at the Colby College Museum of Art formalizes the museum’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and contextualizes the very notion of American art.
The policy, which guides how the museum acquires art for its collection, makes room for a broader, more complex, and fluid understanding of “America” and a hemispheric approach to collecting art; for the impact of emigration, immigration, and the diaspora; and for the importance of art by First Nations makers.
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“The prior collections policy, ratified in 2006, embraces American art as a collecting emphasis within a broader spectrum of collecting art from diverse cultures and historical periods, a balance we are continuing,” said Jacqueline Terrassa, the Carolyn Muzzy Director of the Colby College Museum of Art. “However, it implied that American solely meant the arts of the United States.”
Adopted by the Collections and Impact Committee of the Museum Board of Governors, the new policy says, in part:
“The Colby Museum is a destination for the study, preservation, and exhibition of American art. We continue to build on the museum’s founding strength in the art of the United States from across its history while also developing the collection in ways that facilitate pluralistic and inclusive understandings of the idea of America. In dialogue with existing holdings, strategic acquisitions seek to bring complexity and richness to the interpretation of American art.
“The museum has a strong collection of art from cultures and traditions outside of the United States and will continue building this collection to support its academic and public mission. Acquisitions should support the museum’s strategic goals and strengthen the museum’s ability to play a leading role in Colby’s evolving curriculum.”
The document also describes the museum’s collecting methods; criteria for evaluating artworks proposed for the collection; provenance, ethical, and legal considerations; as well as general guidelines and stipulations about ongoing care associated with works of art and how the obligation of that care influences acquisitions.
In addition, the policy states that when the museum considers the purchase of art made by a living artist, it will favor sales that benefit the artist instead of a third-party dealer. “That is part of our work advancing equity,” Terrassa said. “The argument historically has been that any artwork that comes into a museum collection benefits the artist because it helps the artist grow their reputation. While this is true, artists, like everyone, have the right to make money from their work. If we have the opportunity to acquire something that actually benefits the artist financially, we will do that.”
The museum did precisely that when it purchased one of Faith Ringgold’s “story quilts,” Coming to Jones Road #4: Under A Blood Red Sky, which is on view now. “Faith Ringgold is quite successful now,” said Terrassa, noting that Ringgold is 91. “But that wasn’t the case throughout her life.”
The policy is flexible enough to give the museum latitude and formalizes what the museum has practiced for many years, said Elizabeth Finch, chief curator. “The policy is new, but it articulates what we have been doing for some time,” Finch said.
Most important, the new policy articulates the museum’s ethics and values in relation to how it acquires art, which is among the most visible, important, and impactful aspects of its work, Terrassa said. “This document reflects our values, and it is an important statement about who we are as an institution.”
The changes to the museum’s acquisitions guidelines were led by Terrassa and Finch in partnership with Paula Crane Lunder, D.F.A. ’98, who until recently served as chair of the Collections and Impact Committee, and Sarah Workneh, its vice chair. Lisa Marin will soon step into the role of committee chair.
Marin is a longtime art educator. She lives in rural Maine and is the granddaughter of modernist painter John Marin, whose paintings helped establish the Colby Museum within the field of modern and contemporary art. Her parents were John Marin Jr. and Norma Boom Marin, who was a generous benefactor and lifetime member of the Museum Board of Governors. Norma Marin died this year.
Terrassa said Marin was an ideal choice to assume the role of committee chair.
“Lisa is a retired K-12 educator who understands the value of art in education,” Terrassa said. “She also has profound knowledge of art from her upbringing, from going with her parents to openings, meeting so many artists, and seeing firsthand her mother’s work with institutions like ours in terms of thinking about the transformative power of gifts of art.”
Several recent acquisitions by the Colby College Museum of Art are on display. Here are three to look for when you visit this summer:
Faith Ringgold’s Coming to Jones Road #4: Under A Blood Red Sky is among the artist’s renowned “story quilts,” a painted textile that merges domestic art-form sensibilities with African-American folk traditions. Ringgold made multiple versions of Coming to Jones Road #4: Under a Blood Red Sky, but only one that she turned into a story quilt, now at Colby. It joins a Ringgold print, The Sunflower’s Quilting Bee at Arles, in the Colby Museum collection. Acrylic on canvas with fabric borders, the painted textile tells a story of the resilience of enslaved people as they make their journey north toward freedom along the Underground Railroad. Along the edges, Ringgold inscribed first-person narratives of the people on the journey.
The bronze sculpture Abraham Lincoln: The Man is one of 17 known replicas of the original by the renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, all made before 1923. At 40 inches tall, it represents Lincoln as he rises from a seated position to deliver a speech. The Colby sculpture is modeled after a 12-foot Lincoln sculpture on display in Chicago. Prior to being acquired by Colby, the sculpture, also known as the “Standing Lincoln,” lived for many years in the library of the Fay School in Southborough, Mass.
Tony Abeyta, a Navajo (Diné) artist, made the painting Citadel in 2021, depicting adobe structures nestled together on a New Mexico hillside with ominous-looking clouds rolling in the background overhead. Abeyta’s paintings are in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Heard Museum in Phoenix, and other prominent institutions.