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In the early 20th century, the abundance of open museum staff positions in the United States could make a millennial art history major blush. New museums were opening at a quick-fire pace — between 1910 and 1939, the number of American museums swelled from 600 to 2,500 and these institutions were being steadily pumped with the personal art collections of the nation’s self-made millionaires. What was missing, though, was an applicant pool of trained museum professionals.
The pipeline solution couldn’t come from within the relatively new museum landscape, and the country only had a few university art history departments at that time. So the fix came from a somewhat unexpected source: the business world. Specifically, from a partner at the Goldman Sachs investment banking firm.
Paul J. Sachs (grandson of the firm’s founder, Marcus Goldman, and son of name partner, Samuel Sachs) had experience cultivating the wealth of titans of industry, understood the overlap of money and art, and was an avid collector himself. As described in a book recently published by Getty Publications, The Art of Curating: Paul J. Sachs and the Museum Course at Harvard, Sachs was a cocktail of high society finesse, business acumen, and a love of the fine arts, poised to train a generation of American museum leaders.
“I am conscious, in this field, of having something that is truly my own to give,” Sachs wrote to art historian Bernard Berenson in 1927.
A 36-year-old Sachs left Wall Street for Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum in 1915, when he was invited to assume the role of assistant director. There he helped cultivate the young museum’s donor base and collections, before crafting the project that secured his lasting legacy: his Museum Course, one of the first of its kind in the United States.
Between 1921 and 1948, Sachs taught a year-long graduate class at the Fogg “that decisively shaped the development, character, and ethos of the American art museum,” writes Andrew McClellan, co-author of The Art of Curating and an art history professor at Tufts University. The course trained curators and museum directors in a systematic approach that encouraged students to understand the inner workings of museum work, from connoisseurship to operating the heating system. This hadn’t been attempted before, and Sachs taught 338 students, many of who staffed over 100 American museums and 70 universities.
Some of the big names that emerged from his course were Alfred Barr (first director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art), H. W. Janson (who wrote the seminal History of Art textbook still used today), and Perry Rathbone (director of the St. Louis Art Museum and then the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
Of the lessons Sachs imparted to his mentees, some still hold up. Museum professionals “must be guided by high standards of morals,” Sachs insisted. Regardless of a benefactor’s values, a museum’s curators, directors, and educators had to follow a strict code of ethics. This increasingly dictates today’s museum world, including the Harvard Art Museums where the course originated.
“Some of Sachs’s big core topics are important and a concern today,” Soyoung Lee, chief curator of the Harvard Art Museums, told Hyperallergic, “but with a shifting and broadened focus. For example, on the question of ethics, which Sachs’s Museum Course addressed, museums are ever more conscious of, and actively debate, the ethics and professional responsibilities of how we acquire a work of art.” Today, contemporary museums take greater care researching ownership history when acquiring works for their collections; French museums are currently negotiating a large-scale return of artifacts to Senegal and the Ivory Coast, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently turned over a looted ancient Greek vase to the authorities.
While Sachs expected his students to do the right thing, he believed that those expectations shouldn’t extend to a museum’s bread-and-butter wealthy patrons. “The Louvre owes some of its best pictures,” Sachs told his students, “to [Everhard] Jabach.” Jabach was a German-born 17th-century banker who left much of his illustrious art collection to French monarch Louis XIV. Sachs— a man of means himself — urged his students to respect the capitalists who (for better or worse) would likely populate the boards of their museums.
“Sachs understood that American art museums depend on private wealth and that his would-be museum leaders needed to respect the hand that fed,” McClellan told Hyperallergic. “He no more expected his students to question the motives of his collectors than the source of their wealth.”
Museums still court the wealthy out of economic necessity, as per Sachs’s model, but there is increasing pressure to consider the source of donated dollars. For example, following protests regarding the Metropolitan Museum’s acceptance of funds from the Sackler family (founders of Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company that manufactures OxyContin and which is implicated in the opioid epidemic), the museum is reevaluating its donation policy.
Sachs conservatively turned a blind eye on morally questionable industries that funded a museum’s endowment, but some of his views were progressive, even by today’s standards. He believed museum admission prices should be as accessible as possible and criticized the use of unpaid docents. “One could staff a museum with no one but volunteers,” Sachs said, “and this would pauperize the profession.”
He also believed that a museum’s education department should be respected (and compensated) on par with the curatorial staff. “To popularize without cheapening knowledge is one of the most difficult things in the world,” Sachs said. “Instead of lecturers and docents being regarded somewhat as appendages to the museum and paid on that basis, the educational staff ought to be on the same level as curators.”
The graduates of Sachs’s Museum Course set American museums on a path, and with a century’s worth of hindsight we can evaluate what worked, and what didn’t. Writes McClellan, “understanding what Harvard’s Museum Course accomplished — and where it fell short — offers historical perspective for our current thinking about curatorial priorities and preparation in the years to come.”
The Art of Curating: Paul J. Sachs and the Museum Course at Harvard by Sally Anne Duncan and Andrew McClellan is out from Getty Publications.