A hundred years ago, art museums were rapidly growing in size and number across the country, as was an awareness of the urgent need for a new generation to lead them. The idea took its fullest form in the now-legendary museum course created by Paul Sachs at Harvard—a hothouse of intense training over a single academic year that produced such figures as Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art; Chick Austin, the modernist impresario of the Wadsworth Atheneum; and John Walker, the first director of the National Gallery in Washington. So great was the course’s far-ranging influence that its history, now told in The Art of Curating: Paul J. Sachs and the Museum Course at Harvard, approaches a critical study of the American art museum in the twentieth century.1
The book began as a graduate thesis by Sachs’s granddaughter, Sally Anne Duncan, and after her untimely death in 2007 it was expanded by Andrew McClellan, her professor at Tufts. From the origins of the course in the early twentieth century to its winding down in the 1970s, the authors have probed its methods and values, and in doing so have shown the extraordinary farsightedness of Sachs’s program as well as its shortcomings in the art world of today. As the daughter of Perry Rathbone, one of its high-flying graduates of the 1930s, I absorbed its core values by osmosis from an early age. Reading the introductory class notes in the appendix of the present volume, I recognized traits that I had always thought of as my father’s natural personality to be, in large measure, a result of his training: his “wide bowing acquaintance with the whole field of the Fine Arts” and his “roving eye,” the interest he took in every member of his museum staff, “for from each one we can learn something,” and not the least, the loyalty he felt toward his classmates as they fanned out across the country to various posts, never forgetting Sachs’s advice to “play together and work together.”
Up until the time of the course’s beginnings, museum directors and curators were often artists, archeologists, and collectors without a common standard or sense of purpose. The task, therefore, was to define the profession itself, and to create “a democracy of specialists”—a new managerial class as legitimate as the experts in the fields of law and business. Harvard seemed the place to launch such a project, with its newly built Fogg Museum, a growing collection, and its director, Edward Forbes, deeply involved in the fields of connoisseurship and conservation. Alongside Forbes, a quiet Boston Brahmin of inherited wealth, was Paul Sachs of the New York Jewish banking family that begot Goldman, Sachs & Co., who had developed a passion for collecting drawings and had jettisoned a career in finance to co-direct the Fogg. Together they envisioned the museum as a laboratory of learning. As the authors explain, “the fine arts department at the Fogg borrowed the laboratory model from science and the case method from law and business to legitimize its activities.” The course they named “Museum Work and Museum Problems,” informally known as “the museum course,” would be hands-on in every sense of the word.
While honing their art historical knowledge, students learned the specifics of museum management from the top down. The museum course was a dress rehearsal for life, covering everything from the lofty tasks of collecting works of art and arranging exhibitions, down to the less glamorous concerns of the superintendent such as heating, ventilation, elevators, and janitorial duties. Sachs shared his own correspondence file with his students, to show the kinds of issues that arise in the daily workings of a museum.
Collecting was the primary goal of museum curators a century ago, and the game was played to the highest stakes.
Collecting was the primary goal of museum curators a century ago, and the game was played to the highest stakes. Instruction centered on how to buy, what to look for, and where to find it, with every aspect involved in the process, such as negotiating with art dealers, appraising the object’s value, and assessing its importance in the context of the collection of the museum one served. All of this took intensive training of the eye for quality. Students were also coached in the gentle art of courting collectors in hopes of attracting gifts of art. And they practiced making a case for a new acquisition in front of an imaginary board of trustees.
The intimacy of the course is well demonstrated by the Thursday afternoon sessions Sachs hosted in the library of Shady Hill, his eighteenth-century house in Cambridge, the former home of Charles Eliot Norton, Harvard’s first professor of Fine Arts. Surrounded by his books and curios, Sachs invited students to pick up and handle the objects in his collection. As they gained familiarity with a broad spectrum of collectible artifacts, he would conduct his “Junk Shop” exercise, laying out forty or fifty objects for their study. Among these might be a piece of eighteenth-century German silver, a fragment of a fifteenth-century Italian painting, a Benin bronze head, a carved figure from a medieval choir stall, or a fake Rodin drawing. Students were asked to identify the objects and sort them into one of three categories: those worthy of the Fogg collection, those of lesser quality but worth looking at, and those that were “unquestionably bad,” including forgeries. This exercise would serve them well not only in buying art, but also in sorting through a large and varied collection such as Grenville Winthrop’s bequest to the Fogg in 1943—to take the best and delegate the rest.
One of Sachs’s greatest gifts was his extensive personal network of collectors and dealers in America and Europe. The spring field trips included visits to dealers such as Joseph Duveen in New York and private collectors like the Wideners at Lynnewood Hall outside Philadelphia, and Andrew Mellon and Duncan Phillips in Washington. Sachs thereby “dramatized the power of network,” and his introductions to some of the great collecting families extended far beyond the year-long course at Harvard.
While teaching his students to appeal to the rich and titled, Sachs also encouraged them to embrace a broad public. He conducted informal sessions on current museological issues, presenting his students with topics for debate, dividing the class to represent opposing sides. One such debate was how to deal with contemporary art in the historical setting of the art museum. In those days of rapidly developing modernist movements, it was not clear how much of the latest art would stand the test of time.
Another lively debate of the time was “the period room dilemma.” On the one hand, the period room appealed to a broad spectrum of the public in its connection to daily life, and it was hoped that once attracted to the display, the untrained visitor might be interested in seeing and learning more. Those against the period room would argue that the individual object was lost in the distraction of the setting. The debate touched on the philosophical divide between the interests of serving the educated elite versus the general public, a debate that remains lively to this day. In those days it was exemplified by the opposing camps of John Cotton Dana of the Newark Museum, who believed that an art museum should serve the educational needs of the local community with a strong emphasis on modern industry and everyday objects, and that of Benjamin Ives Gilman of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, who argued that the museum was a spiritual temple of art that need serve no other purpose. Sachs instructed his students to consider both extremes, but aimed for a middle road like the kind the Metropolitan Museum demonstrated in practice—collecting and preserving at the highest levels, along with providing educational outreach to a broad general public.
The issues of cultural patrimony and provenance were important considerations in the days of the museum course, but not nearly as important as they would become fifty years later. Many of Sachs’s students participated in the Allied repatriation of Nazi-looted art during the war, raising the general awareness of the problems of provenance. But as the authors note,
those same Monuments Men bought freely for their museums from dealers in the post-war years without much regard for where things came from. Undoing Nazi war crimes on behalf of sister museums was one thing; policing an unregulated art market to the detriment of your own institution was another.
Sachs’s passive attitude toward provenance allowed that his students were not responsible for another country’s carelessness or corruption. The Sachs generation was trained not to ask too deeply about provenance, just as today’s curators are trained to probe.
Later, the pressure was on Sachs to promote connoisseurship over museological training. With the arrival of the German refugee Jakob Rosenberg in 1936, the museum course shifted its focus to more scholarly concerns and an ever-more-rigorous training of the eye. Less time was devoted to informal sessions on the role of the museum and its public—a subject in tune with the progressivism of the Depression era—and more to the esoteric realms of connoisseurship.
When Sachs retired in 1948, he had taught well over two hundred students. They had spread out across the country, with a far-reaching influence at the museums they served. The course resumed after a hiatus in 1950, to be taught by a team including John Coolidge, then the director of the Fogg and a product of the course, and other faculty. But times were changing and the course was evolving from an incubator of professional training to a vocational sideline of art history.
At Harvard there was a growing reaction against the connoisseurship that by the 1960s carried the whiff of privilege, and a general feeling pervaded the art historical discipline that it was due for an injection of intellectual rigor. Theory entered the field in force via Marxism, feminism, and semiotics—approaches distrustful of the encounter with the object firsthand. Museum collections were increasingly neglected in the teaching of art history at Harvard. Ranks split over the role of the teaching museum between old school connoisseurs like Sydney Freedberg and Marxists influenced by T. J. Clark. Two different art histories coexisted on contentious terms. Museum curators were isolated from the art historical discourse and academics disinclined to seek objects. In this discursive atmosphere, the museum course foundered. Its slow demise after Sachs’s retirement tells how it was a product of both its time and its irreplaceable founder.
At Harvard there was a growing reaction against the connoisseurship that by the 1960s carried the whiff of privilege, and a general feeling pervaded the art historical discipline that it was due for an injection of intellectual rigor.
One of the revelations of this book is the large number of women in the course—about a third of the class in any given year—many of whom went on to professional museum work. But for the most part these women joined the lesser ranks of the museum in both pay and stature, with a few notable exceptions, such as Edith Standen, who joined the Monuments Men during the war and later became the curator of textiles at the Met. We learn that Sachs did what he could to connect his female students to the higher positions they often deserved. There was no question that religion, race, and sexual orientation were also determining factors of employment in the museum world, and that straight, white, Protestant males had a distinct advantage in obtaining leadership roles. (James Rorimer, whose original family name was Rohrheimer, suspected anti-Semitism whenever he ran into internal opposition as the director of the Met.) Many men successfully hid their homosexual orientations behind the façade of marriage and family.
In his time, Sachs’s combination of passionate connoisseurship and savvy business sense, along with his genuine interest in students of all backgrounds, made him ideal to lead a generation forward. If he did not know all the answers, he asked the important questions that museums still grapple with today. In a similar spirit, the authors have steered a judicious path between the honorific and the circumspect in their story of a course that, a century later, is all the more interesting to consider.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 4, on page 12
Copyright © 2022 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com