Written by Jennifer Stoots

In March 2005 the Metropolitan Museum of Art was fortunate enough to have acquired the Gilman Paper Company Photography Collection, elevating the Museum’s collection of 19th Century photography to the status of enviable.  The Met has made a concerted effort to develop its comparatively modest photography collection over the last two decades. The acquisition of the Gilman Collection, however, puts them on par with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, with regard to photography.

Howard Gilman was a paper magnate who began collecting photography in the late 1970’s, when the market for photographs was beginning to take shape.  With the guidance of curator Pierre Apraxine, Mr. Gilman acquired many of the premier examples of 19th Century French, British and American photography, as well as icons from the turn-of-the-century and early modernism.  Photographers included in the collection:  Edouard Baldus, Matthew Brady, Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, Nadar, Gustave Le Gray, Man Ray, Timothy O’Sullivan, William Henry Fox Talbot, Carleton E. Watkins, and many many more. Between 1977 and 1997, Mr. Gilman had amassed more than 8,500 photographs, dating primarily from the medium’s first century, 1839 – 1939.  The Gilman Collection is considered by some to have set the standard for connoisseurship in the field and been deemed on many occasions as the world’s finest collection of photographs in private hands.

Prior to securing the Gilman Collection, the core of The Met’s photography collection was comprised of the Rubel Collection, the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, the Fort Motor Company Collection and the Walker Evans Archive, supplemented by purchases over the last two decades.  The new addition, however, will allow the museum to present an encyclopedic survey of the medium.

The Gilman Paper Company Photography Collection was part purchase and part gift.  Few institutions have the buying power of The Met or the Getty Museum.  Most museums lack the endowments to fill out their collections as they wish and rely on the generosity of private donations.  In many cases, museum supporters give funds outright, such that the curators can develop the museum’s collection in a manner consistent with their holdings.  Many patrons, however, are collectors in their own right and, whether during their lifetime of after, give or bequeath their art to the museum of their choice.  In some cases, the donated work supplements the existing collection.  In other cases, the donated work establishes future collecting patterns for that institution, especially in the case of large collections where the collector has gone out of his or her way to accumulate a comprehensive set of works.[1]

[1]  Terry Toedtemeier, Curator of Photography at the Portland Art Museum, has noted that “Private collection gifts fueled the first 15 years of collection growth at the Portland Art Museum” and continue to be an invaluable factor in the development of their Photography collection.

A couple of other substantial private photography collections to pass into public hands:  The Paul and Prentice Sack collection of architectural photographs was given to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Fine Arts San Francisco, and the coveted Manfred Heiting Collection was purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.