Present-day art by known artists is wildly expensive, even for big museums. But in the past decade, the Mead has steadily bolstered its contemporary collection. Since he arrived, Little has bought some 300 pieces of contemporary art for the College. And in August 2019, the Mead announced a gift of more than 170 contemporary artworks from an anonymous donor. To celebrate this depth and momentum, Little has curated a new exhibition whose roster boasts familiar names—David Hockney, Cindy Sherman—as well as emergent ones, such as Heather Agyepong and Kapwani Kiwanga. The show, titled Starting Something New, runs through July 26.
How do you cope with the steep prices for contemporary art?
You have to select an artist who isn’t as well-known, and so they’re much more affordable. The other way is to select an artist who has been forgotten and there’s no good reason why they’ve been forgotten.
What weight does contemporary art hold for Amherst students?
Students get an opportunity to meet an artist. That’s been the great attraction of contemporary art, for the Mead, for the curriculum and for the students. Students get exposed to not only how artists think but how they make things, how they analyze.
There is also more diversity in contemporary art than in most of the Mead’s collection from previous centuries.
That’s the other impetus for collecting contemporary: we want work that speaks to the students of their generation. It’s important for them to have art that belongs to them, time-wise. In terms of purchasing contemporary art versus getting a gift, we are focused on collecting artists of color. About 80 percent of what we’re buying is by artists of color. And most of those are women artists.
What are your collecting strategies?
Every day, galleries send me a list of artworks that have just come in. My home is in Katonah, N.Y. I’m in Amherst during the week, then in Katonah on Thursday, and I usually spend Friday in New York looking at art. I also go to shows and art fairs: Miami Basel, Art Paris, the Venice Biennale. We have a collection plan that helps us focus. I’ll use the metaphor of shopping for clothes: The plan helps us ensure that, when we go to the department store to get a pair of pants, we don’t come back with a jacket.
The donor of those 170-plus contemporary artworks prefers to remain anonymous, but is there anything you can tell us about the donor’s vision?
In five years, I can say who the donor is, since the donor had given the permission to do that. Sadly, the donor passed away months after he gifted his works to the Mead and several other places. The Mead is creating our own identity. And I would say that the works that the donor was collecting fit within that mold. He was collecting well-known artists but not collecting necessarily the works that they’re known for. He had a very singular
What’s the value of the Trinkett Clark Memorial Student Acquisition Fund, through which students select and acquire contemporary art for the Mead?
This art is not only of their generation—it’s up to their choice. That is a radical and wonderful thing. Any time we can take their feedback and enhance our collection, it’s terrific.
Gallery photo and photos of Calame and Lamsfuss paintings: Jiayi Liu