Collecting and Cataloguing the Contemporary

By Thaara Shankar

Art surrounds our world, whether we’re inside a gallery or museum, or outside looking at murals and street art. We now have the ability to organize and arrange our spaces, which can be found everywhere from lockers, to dashboard mirrors, to store windows. In a materialistic sense we are all collectors. However, to truly explore this practice, one must start at the beginning by asking: what is a collection? This question was the focus of the Fall 2016 course “Collecting and Cataloguing the Contemporary” in the Program in Museums and Society. In this course, taught by MICA professor Virginia Anderson, students explored the world of collecting, from creating our own definitions of collecting and refining them through the semester, to exploring social and psychological readings and theories about the practice. The course included a practicum aspect involving crafting and creating an essay exploring a theme using ten objects in Connie Caplan’s private collection of modern and contemporary art. I was attracted to this course because I enjoy working with objects, and felt that this would be an excellent opportunity to learn more about the art world and familiarize myself with contemporary artworks.

My theme was the human figure/body and my objects dated from the late 20th century to 2015. I was excited to explore this theme, though at first the objects felt jarring. The ideas and visions of the body presented were so far from my visual vocabulary, having taken Renaissance and Medieval art history courses, where bodies were idealized and used to reflect upon high ideals. Here, the figure was disjointed, jarring, and not immediately recognizable. Collecting more books from the library than ever before, I attempted to immerse myself in the minds of my artists. It was extremely gratifying to read accounts from the artists themselves. Thinking about pieces in the context of their creation in relation to the other objects as well as the present moment provoked my deep interest in curating as a form of commentary.

One of the best aspects of the course was getting to know the collector, Connie Caplan. We met with her several times in both her Baltimore home and Manhattan apartment. She was incredibly kind and always ready to answer any question we had. I was particularly enamored with the design of the house, which was created and executed by her son, who is an architect in New York. The interiors were incredible and the lines between art, home, and residence all combined. Each thoughtful detail added to the whole space. On our first trip to the Baltimore residence, all of us in the class were staring wide-eyed in awe, even before we left the car.

The collector shed light on what it is like to be an active participant in the art world. She has an incredible library of art books and such a palpable passion. Collecting fine art is not about just going to an auction house whenever, but rather actively seeking out artists and pieces, whether by visiting artists’ studios or attending exhibitions regularly. To be a modern art collector, you must be on the beat. The passion and love she has is incredible to see. She had a deeper connection to art that paralleled if not rivaled many students of art history.

I was first drawn to this course as a sort of cultural-anthropologist. I was interested in knowing what it was like to live with actual masterpieces. I wondered what it is like to be the curator of your own home. It was exhilarating to work with these objects. The setting allowed the class to get as close as possible to the art. It was an incredible opportunity and we are all thankful to Ms. Caplan, Dr. Virginia Anderson, and Dr. Elizabeth Rodini.

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