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Made in the UK at RISD

Made in the UK at RISD
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   Sometime before the end of the year, when we head to Providence to visit our oldest daughter and her family, we will definitely stop by the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art to check out Made in the UK: Contemporary Art from the Richard Brown Baker Collection. The exhibition (September 23 to January 8) features close to 100 paintings, prints, drawings and sculpture by British artist from the 1950s to the present. But I’m as interested in the late Richard Brown Baker as I am in his collection.

Richard Brown Baker in his Park Avenue apartment, April 1995. Photo by Jerry Thompson

Richard Brown Baker (1912-2002) was a self-described “New England Puritan” born into a patrician Rhode Island family. His father was a prominent attorney in Providence. A grandfather was president of Industrial Trust Company (later Fleet Bank). He attended Moses Brown School, graduated from Yale in 1935, studied at Oxford as a Rhode Scholar, and spent several years working for the American ambassador in Spain and OSS before he “retired” to New York in 1952 at the age of 40 and spent the rest of his life collecting contemporary art.

  Baker was the best kind of art collector as far as I’m concerned. Anyone with piles of money can collect blue chip art by established artists, but, as Baker explained in 1965, “My collection represents more time spent walking around and looking than it does money. That’s been my minor contribution to American life – to be there and buy what’s not yet wanted.”

Bridget Riley, Gather, 1981.

An adventurous collector, Baker cast a wide net across the last half the 20th century, buying early in an artist’s career when works were still affordable. “I get there early and I make fast decisions,” he once told The New York Times. That meant buying a lot of art by artists who never “made it,” but Baker also netted a major collection of art by artists who did.

    The bulk of Richard Brown Baker’s 1,600 object collection, mostly postwar American art by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg, was bequeathed to his alma mater Yale. But Baker gave a substantial collection of contemporary British art to the RISD museum along with endowing a curatorship and a fund with which RISD continues to collect.

    “He not only donated outstanding works of art to the Museum,” says RISD Museum director John Smith, “but also provided acquisition funds to allow us to build on his remarkable legacy.”

Damien Hirst, Utopia, 2008

Artists represented in the Made in the UK Baker collection show include Pop Art favorite David Hockney, abstract painter Howard Hodgkin, and Op Art darling Bridget Riley from the recent past as well as Young British Artists stars such as Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread.

    The substance and quality of contemporary British art is there, but so is the spirit of the gentleman who spent half a lifetime hunting and gathering in the concrete jungles of the art world in order to support emerging artists and college art museums. Well done.

[RISD Museum of Art, 224 Benefit St., Providence RI, 401-454-6500]

Edgar Allen Beem


Edgar Allen Beem


Take a look at art in New England with Edgar Allen Beem. He’s been art critic for the Portland Independent, art critic and feature writer for Maine Times, and now is a freelance writer for Yankee, Down East, Boston Globe Magazine, The Forecaster, and Photo District News. He’s the author of Maine Art Now (1990) and Maine: The Spirit of America (2000). In 1988, he won the Manufacturers Hanover Art/World Award for Distinguished Newspaper Art Criticism for his coverage of the 1987 auction sale of Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises. Ed says, “My credo as an arts writer has long been: ‘The work of art is the search for meaning.’ I believe art is not only a form of personal expression but also a form of inquiry, every bit as much a quest for truth as scientific research.” Ed Beem’s newest book, Backyard Maine: Local Essays, has just been published by Tilbury House, Publishers, of Gardiner, Maine. It’s not about the meaning of art; it’s about the meaning of family, community, and life in general. Edgar Beem is currently at work on a new book about contemporary art in Maine to be published in the fall of 2012.
Updated Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

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