Working as a Museum without Walls

Elizabeth Glassman

President Emerita, Terra Foundation for American Art

This is not your typical collection handbook—at least not the kind you are likely to find in a museum gift shop. Whereas those publications serve as a guide to art on view in the galleries, here we present Terra Foundation artworks that you might encounter on someone else’s walls, perhaps at the Pinacoteca in São Paulo, the National Gallery in London, the Shanghai Museum, or the Art Institute of Chicago. Allow me to explain: while the foundation possesses nearly 800 paintings, works on paper, and sculptures of historical American art, we do not have a permanent, dedicated exhibition space. For more than a decade, we have modeled ourselves as a “museum without walls,” and as such our collection has been in museums, and in front of audiences, around the world.

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Daniel J. Terra (1911–1996) pursued American art passionately, starting in 1971 with the purchase of three oil sketches by John Singer Sargent. The son of Italian immigrants, Terra’s love of country and ideas about national identity fueled his relentless drive to collect distinctive works and to share the artistic heritage of the United States by creating several museums. First there was a small museum in Evanston, Illinois (1980–1987), followed by a larger one on Michigan Avenue in Chicago (1987–2004), and by a partially concurrent second museum in Giverny, France (1992–2009), down the lane from the home and studio of Claude Monet.

These museums exemplified Terra’s emphasis on the importance of experiencing original works of art—a guiding principle that continues to inspire the work of the Terra Foundation. In 2005 we expanded our mission and ventured in a bold new direction, presenting American art to audiences across the globe rather than relying on them to come to us. We established a robust grant program that advances research, exhibitions, academic programs, and publications worldwide. To the surprise of many, we also chose to keep the collection.

Whereas the life of an individual collector has a single narrative arc, the life of a collection takes many trajectories. It assumes various shapes, and its significance shifts as it is recontextualized over time. So we continue to refine and grow the collection from Terra’s original holdings, giving it new shape and inflection. In fact, this handbook features thirteen new acquisitions made between 2006 and 2018. The collection resides at the core of our endeavor, stimulating a nearly inexhaustible array of opportunities. For example, Terra Collection Initiatives take shape as collaborative exhibitions with partner institutions such as the Musée du Louvre, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the National Museum of Korea. By placing works of art in front of audiences internationally, these exhibitions engender meaningful cross-cultural dialogues. They situate works of American art outside of their native context, and in so doing, elicit different responses that demonstrate the fluid nature of cultural identity.

Terra Collection Initiatives are entrepreneurial undertakings, always generative in nature and experimental in spirit. They stimulate the examination of collection objects through new lenses and forge fresh connections with diverse audiences. Sometimes these projects extend over several years and assume multiple forms, from single-painting exhibitions to large “first-ever” surveys, and from major loan shows to focused exhibitions, all with associated educational offerings. Terra Collection Initiatives are also catalysts for deeper research and writing. We often convene scholars from various parts of the world to share ideas, confront national distinctions, question traditional methodologies, and pry away preconceptions. In the spirit of these gatherings, we have invited many of the scholars with whom we have worked to contribute to this handbook. Just as we encounter different languages in each collaboration, so, too, will you find in this volume new perspectives on works of art in our collection from a multitude of voices.

Ably orchestrated by our Chicago-based registrar Cathy Ricciardelli, the Terra Foundation’s dynamic approach is led by our two curators: Peter John Brownlee, working in the Chicago office, and Katherine Bourguignon, in Paris. They act as curators and scholars, educators and diplomats. My deep appreciation and applause to them both for their innovative approaches in identifying the most engaging and rewarding partnership opportunities to showcase the foundation’s collection. Over the years they have cultivated large global networks of curators and professors, colleagues they engage to probe larger questions in American art. Their creative exhibitions connect people worldwide and inspire vigorous international exchange.

Embedded in the Terra Foundation mission is a belief that art has the power both to distinguish cultures and to unite them. Each work of art in this volume facilitates ongoing conversations that extend across time and space, as well as national borders. We hope that the next time you encounter an American work of art—be it in Philadelphia, Paris, Prague, or Perth—you enjoy it and take a closer look. And maybe, just maybe, it might be one of ours.