Rightful Ownership of the Arts

Rightful Ownership of the Arts

A lively discussion about the rightful ownership of art recently took place in a course I am teaching. We were considering masterworks of ancient sculpture that have been purchased and transported to unrelated locations: the Pergamon Altar of the 2nd century BC, brought in the 19th century to Berlin from the acropolis in Pergamon, and the Nike of Samothrace, the stately winged Greek messenger sculpted circa 190 BC, now occupying a grand position in the Louvre rather than the ruins of the temple complex in Samothrace where she originally stood.

This topic led to another question: what does it mean when significant works of art are purchased for private collections? Is it right for them to live sequestered from public view? Do masterworks of art belong to the world at large? Should they be housed in public spaces where they can be freely visited?

The following week would find me confronted with this question face-to-face. A tour for which I’m lecturing in began with a surprise reception in a private home in Cologne. Built in Bauhaus style, this home was far grander than its humble façade suggests. It is open and airy, with a lofty glassed corridor flanked by quadrants of gardens.

Our hosts were respected, highly-educated members of Cologne’s business and artistic community. They regularly open their home, filled as it is with significant works of art, for events. Large contemporary canvases, small sculptures from disparate eras, valuable pieces of decorative art, and select paintings define each room. Everything is arranged elegantly, and fits organically with the space.

The profound obligation these owners feel to preserve art and make it available to the public was tangible at every turn. I overheard bits of conversation about upcoming events the family would be hosting. It appeared to be a part of the weekly rhythm of their life, and it cannot be an easy one to maintain. Regardless, they feel this mission deep in their bones.

Most of us do not own a significant art collection or carry the weight that comes with purchasing and preserving art. However, the obligation to preserve and present our artistic heritage is present in each of our lives. This may be easier to see in places like Cologne where modern buildings are set consciously upon the foundations of Roman walls. Every inch of real estate is developed with an eye to its cultural significance and historical past. The artistic heritage of the community is part of everyday life, rather than a rote curricular requirement.

Americans once avidly cultivated our artistic heritage, especially in cities on the east coast. Our most esteemed cultural institutions were built by families who devoted private resources to this project, establishing galleries and museums, orchestras and theaters. These institutions, alas, tend to be taken for granted today. There is diminishing appreciation for the fact that philanthropic citizens, not kings or archbishops, brought them into being.

Yet, here we are, whipped up by academics and ideologically inflamed citizens into the frenzied stripping our cities, our campuses, and our public institutions of their past. Indeed, some dedications and monuments may need to be reconsidered, reconfigured, or possibly even removed. But those circumstances are rare.

Instead, total swaths of our historical culture are being ripped away in a manner so thoughtless as to have been inconceivable just years ago. With every monument toppled or name stripped, a chunk of our history disappears. Time is supposed to be the arbiter of how history is written, not a ravenous assembly of professors and activists.

One historical argument for having masterworks in private hands relates to the probability that they will be better protected from ideological wrath. It pains me to see awkwardly worded placards slapped up next to the identity tags on paintings and sculptures in American and European museums. These placards preach sermons reinterpreting items created centuries ago. They apply language and ideas that no artist of the time would recognize or understand. I most recently witnessed this curatorial malpractice among Renaissance treasures at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. If it were not so damaging, it would be laughable.

Still, the passage of time has a way of winning the argument. I vividly remember being in Moscow a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Churches were reopening. The old names of streets and institutions were being restored. Monuments toppled by the Bolsheviks were being recast. I’ll never forget the physical shock of bumping into the pedestal of a newly cast bronze of a Romanov tsar while backing up to photograph a favorite view. “Where did he come from?” I uttered. “He wasn’t here before!”

Actually, he was—right there, until his statue was melted down by the Bolsheviks. When they forced their violent ideology onto the citizenry, everything was done to quash nine-hundred years of tsarist heritage (not to mention more than nine-hundred years of Christian history). With a new light illuminating the Russian world, the past was being rediscovered. It had won its battle through patience.

Who can say when the current fever for destroying our cultural heritage will abate? It is imperative to take ownership of our artistic treasures and interpret them within their rightful historical contexts. We become their collectors and curators every time we help our students understand their value. We cannot lose confidence in the efficacy of this work. Standing at the center of the mission are readers of this journal, particularly the passionate teachers and directors who fuel the boilers and steer the ship of the K-12 classical schools. Let us encourage one another with fervor of heart, taking advantage of opportunities like the National Symposium for Classical Education where we joyously can forge relationships, share expertise, and empower one another to plant and cultivate this critically needed treasure.


Dr. Carol Reynolds was Associate Professor of Music History at the Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas for 20 years. She leads educational tours in Europe and beyond with Smithsonian Journeys.

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