Thanksgiving. Sipping drinks before the start of the meal, catching up on the ‘what’s new’ of the past year with John, a friend of the family since before I was born. To my surprise and delight, John told me about his mother’s art collection. I guess I had always kind of known that John’s family was into art, but this Thanksgiving, I found out that John’s mother (who died in 2009) had actually run a successful art gallery in San Francisco –the Dorothy Weiss Gallery, until her retirement in 2000. Art collecting was her passion; it filled her life (both literally filling her home, and filling her creative energies) for over two decades. Did I want to see her personal collection, still arranged as she had laid it out, at the house of John’s elderly father? Absolutely.
I headed over to the Weiss house the next day. Dorothy Weiss had collected a whole range of contemporary art, but her favorites seemed to have been ceramics. I had not heard of all the artists, but a couple of the works were the more famous sorts, including, for example a work by Peter Voulkous, a ceramics sculptor known for moving ceramics away from beyond tight ties to utility and function, into creations that were solely fine art. What I enjoyed most about the visit was the sense of discovery moving through all the artwork in the house. Dorothy Weiss had pieces of her collection on the coffee table, arranged next to the piano, in the garden, on all the walls –basically in just about every appropriate corner of her home. Each of the works could have been studied and analyzed on its own, but it was their interaction with each other and with the real, functional living space that made the strongest impression. I’ve appreciated for a while how great art collections –carefully planned and put together, can be conceived of themselves as works of art, but it was only while walking through Dorothy Weiss’ house that I really understood this viscerally.
I’ve been thinking again of my experience seeing Dorothy Weiss’ collection since a classmate gave a presentation last week about some important female art collectors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. “Matrons of the Arts”, she called them. Her presentation focused on Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Isabella Stewart Gardener, and her thesis was that, although we art historians talk a lot about how few female artists have risen to fame and power, how it seems in art that traditionally men have been the creators and women the muses, in fact, these women collectors were hugely influential in shaping culture and aesthetics. Gardener was instrumental in bringing interest in the European avant garde to American audiences (movements like Impressionism), and Whitney insisted on opening a space in high museum culture for American artists. The art world today would not be the same without these women.
Visiting Dorothy Weiss’s house, I’ve come to see how much art collectors are creators in their own way, how each collection is individual and reflects on the vision and personality of the man or woman who brought it together. Thus, the critical description of an art world in which men are creators and women are muses is in fact more complicated. Women like Whitney, and Gardener in the early twentieth century, as well as, more humbly perhaps but still importantly, Dorothy Weiss in the twenty-first century, were creators in the art world as much as any of the male (and the few female) artists whose art works can be found in their collections.