Any time a large donation from a private collection is made to a muse- um one has to question the impact that has on programming and the overall freedom the curators have in incorporating the new works into their exhibition plans. Obviously, it is a good thing to be gifted artwork but whose agenda comes to the fore when a large gift is made? How is a context for the new collection articulated?
“There was a whole collection made: Photography from Lester and Betty Guttman” is gleaned from an enormous gift of photographs made to the Smart Museum by long-time Hyde Park residents. The exhibition presents several hundred works of the 830 total pieces donated. The Guttman’s collection comprises 414 different artists and spans over 160 years of photographic history including William Henry Fox Talbot, Man Ray, Diane Arbus, Chuck Close, and Carrie Mae Weems to name but a few. Thus the resulting exhibition feels more like a survey of photography than a visual guide to the unique predilections of a quirky art collector. It’s an overwhelming exhibition—in a good way. And speaks not only to the photographic survey it provides but also to the beauty and passion of collecting. The sheer quantity of images the Guttman’s collected over 30 years is a testament to the value they placed on the photographic image and its power to connect with and exemplify their humanist values.
The exhibition is organized in thematic clusters as opposed to a more obvious choice to organize by artist or along a timeline. While this lends to a slightly more disjointed exhibition, it challenges the viewer to see each image as it relates to its theme (and thus the collectors’ interests)—beyond the taxonomy of artist’s name and year the work was created. While traditionalists will want to see all of the works by contemporary
artist Vik Muniz or all of the historic Paris photos of Eugène Atget together, it is easy to appreciate the context that the various themes provide: The Natural and Built World; Experimentation: Interrogation of the Medium; Documentary: Telling Real Stories; Portraiture: Pose and Counterpose; and Fifteen Minutes of Fame.
The themes themselves are arbitrary dividers designed to engage with the collectors’ professed humanist ethics and allow the curators Laura Letinsky (Professor, Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago) and Jessica Moss (Smart Museum Curator of Contemporary Art), to make sense of a vast group of images and to provide a reflection of the collectors as people. Why do we collect and what does a collection say about us seem to be at the forefront of this exhibition.
While it is the Guttman’s collection on dis- play it is clear that this exhibition is also about the persona of the collector and praises collecting as a way of life — a high-end means of integrating one’s values with culture. This is evident in the last gallery, which includes a space designed to evoke the Guttman’s living room with easy chairs, art books, and a flat file filled with artwork in storage waiting for the opportunity to be displayed. Puccini’s famed opera La Bohème is piped through the speakers and the wall text speaks of their beloved Siamese cats, Rudy and Mimi. This diorama of living with art is both charming and elitist. In the end though, the contribution the Guttman’s have made to the Smart Museum’s collection is impressive and the exhibition provides a refreshing take on collecting as a part of life and personalizes the collectors and their compulsion to collect photo- graphs whether you can identify with them and their lifestyle or not.
“There was a whole collection made: Photography from Lester and Betty Guttman” was on view: Sep- tember 22, 2016–December 30, 2016 at the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Jennifer Murray is a Chicago-based artist, curator, and educator. She is the Executive Director of Filter Photo, a non-profit organization supporting photographic practice in the Midwest. She is also an Instructor of Photography at Loyola University Chicago.
Volume 31 no. 4 March / April 2017 pp 27-28