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

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