Minneapois Institute of Arts
New Pictures at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Photographer’s File Provides Item for the Permanent Collection: What a Messy Room!

Posted Sep 13, 2011

Bill Owens, American born 1938
Christina’s Room, 1971
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Bill Owens and Robert Harshorn Shimshak 99.226.1


In 1972 photographer Bill Owens published his first and most important book, Suburbia, which documented the exploding growth of tract housing developments in California. Concentrating on the residents, Owens pictured them proudly situated in their new interiors, with their new possessions, interacting with their new neighbors.

The MIA never sought out an example from this notable series, but ended up acquiring one by pure serendipity. In 1999, Robert Harshorn Shimshak, Owens’s representative, visited the museum and met with me to discuss the photographer’s work. As we were looking casually through the MIA’s file on Owens, Shimshak excitedly pointed out that we had two vintage prints of one of the pictures from the Suburbia series, which had apparently been sent in the 1970s to Fred Parker, an independent curator who gave us his files after he resumed working as an artist. Before there was much of an art market for photographic prints, photographers such as Owens often sent original prints out for publicity or mere reference purposes.

Our two prints of Christina’s Room were vintage but not signed, and Shimshak offered to have Owens sign one of them for our collection, in exchange for letting them keep the second one. We agreed to do this, and subsequently formally accessioned the Owens photograph, as an easy way of adding it to the collection at no cost.

Most of the pictures in the Suburbia book are accompanied by a sentence or two of text, contributed by the subject or, in the case of Christina’s Room, one of her parents. It reads, “I wanted Christina to learn some responsibility for cleaning her room, but it didn’t work.” Note that Christina was not even a teenager yet, so imagine what her room looked like five years later.
Christian A. Peterson, associate curator of photographs

Museum Ethics Help Build the Collection

Posted Aug 4, 2011

Vance Gellert, American born 1944
The Ring, 1994
Dye bleach color print
The Ethelyn Bros Photography Purchase Fund 2001.124

Ten years ago, I was at a fund-raiser for pArts Gallery, then the local non-profit space for photography. Part of the event was a live auction of photographs donated by local and national artists. Vance Gellert, the director of pArts and a photographer in his own right, naturally, provided one of his own prints—an image from a series on his son he called “CarlVision.”

Vance participated in the auction that spring night by holding up the offered photographs and egging on bidders. Unfortunately, when his own picture, “The Ring,” came up, he had trouble getting anyone to bid. Though I admired the photograph, I had gone to the auction determined not to get carried away and spend any money. Nonetheless, I couldn’t bear seeing Vance’s own picture not sell, so I held up my hand and got it for just a few hundred dollars (much less than it was worth, despite the crowd’s disinterest).

But the picture was in my modest collection only over the weekend. Museum ethics require that any object a curator wants to purchase personally must first be offered to the museum, at the original price. This requirement prevents curators from trading on the expertise they have gained on the job for personal gain. Ted Hartwell, then the head of my department, agreed that Vance’s picture was a strong one and a bargain for the museum. So, the MIA reimbursed my purchase price and “The Ring” became part of its permanent collection.

Ultimately, everyone was happy; I didn’t end up spending money, Vance got his work into the museum collection (for the first time), and the MIA added to its holdings. This photograph is currently on display in the exhibition “Facing the Lens: Portraits of Photographers.”

Christian A. Peterson, associate curator of photographs


Inside Stories on the Permanent Collection

Posted Apr 21, 2011

Bourke-White Photograph Sails into MIA Collection Undetected

Margaret Bourke-White, American, 1904-1971
Vanitie, International Yacht Races, Newport, Rhode Island, 1934
Gelatin silver print
Gift of the Kodak Camera Club, 92.18.3

In 1992, a retired photographer gave the museum three photographs, including one of a yacht with billowing sails that had the inscription “From C. P. Curtis” on the back of its mount. After the picture was accepted by the museum, I removed the mat and plastic wrapping that were not original, hoping to find information on Curtis. To my surprise and  delight, I found that the photograph was signed by Margaret Bourke-White, the great photojournalist who provided a different image for the first cover of Life magazine, in 1936. Reproductions elsewhere confirmed that the image was by her, and we changed our records to reflect that fact. Curtis must have been the individual who gave the photograph to our donor, thus it was, indeed, “From C. P. Curtis,” but definitely not by Curtis.

This was the first photograph the MIA acquired by Bourke-White, albeit in a rather unorthodox fashion. The five other pictures by her that subsequently entered the permanent collection, did so with us knowing who they were by.

Christian A. Peterson, association curator of photographs