Acknowledged Excellence, Permanent Importance, Peculiar Value:The Metropolitan Museum’s Collection of Contemporary Art, 1870–1888

SESSION C.1: Artist Talk: Time, Space, Matter
Day 2. Friday, 28th October.
16:00 – 18:00
Venue: CCCB: Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona

In 1870 the Metropolitan Museum of Art began the paradoxical task of building a historical collection that would include works by living American artists, frequently acquiring works the same year they were produced. And yet, the Metropolitan is entirely absent from the emerging history of the contemporary art museum, which generally begins with the 1818 founding of Paris’s Musée de Luxembourg, a “musée du passage” whose works were transferred to the Louvre as they aged. The earliest museums of contemporary art, according to the current historical understanding, were conceived by necessity as strictly non-collecting institutions. Because New York’s Museum of Modern Art and New Museum both initially adopted the Luxembourg’s model, they are frequently cited as prime examples in this lineage. Looking past the biases that have delimited this history to date, this essay will argue for the Metropolitan’s model as a significant—and more appropriate—antecedent for the speculative practices that increasingly drive museum collections of contemporary art today. While emulating experimental institutions that emerged across Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, the Metropolitan also relied on the machinations of the blossoming American art market to determine a work’s potential for permanent importance. At the same time, the centrality of annual “Prize Fund” art competitions and the emergence of the living artist as a persona led to significant changes in the relationship between art, education, national identity, and posterity, presaging the institutional adoption of market worth as a proxy for historical value that has become commonplace globally today. The counterhistory of “the contemporary museum” that I propose takes an unorthodox perspective on contemporaneity and on art’s commodification and
institutionalization, seeking to illuminate some of the economic imperatives at play in the museum’s construction of historical meaning and cultural value.

Ian Wallace
The Graduate Center, CUNY

Ian Wallace is a doctoral student in Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY, where he recently co-organized the conference Scales of Visibility in Global Indigenous Art. His writing has appeared in publications including BOMB Magazine and Art in America and on He is the recent recipient of a grant from the Getty Research Institute and is currently Program Fellow at the International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP), New York.

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