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What Is The Role Of A Collection Manager

(Conclusion of a three-part series)

By: Spencer W. Stuart

Published: December 13, 2017

The relationship between a collector and collection manager necessitates a high level of trust. In this article, we outline some of the foundational roles and principles that should be expected. We will then go into the various systems a collection manager (CM) can implement depending on the desired outcomes of the collector.

Obligation To The Collection

As collections become more extensive and valuable, the need for an objective evaluation of the collection is essential. The ability to assess the comparative prices of an item has transformed the way the general public view collections. Seldom are collections seen as a project developed over many years, woven with anecdotes of places been and relationships formed. Instead the tendency of the media is to gloss over the journey and focus on the destination: what is the value of this or that part of the collection? This is in direct opposition to the interests of the collector and can be seen, to some, as a form of hostility. As has been mentioned in the article on collection management, a collection is made up of its constituent parts; the removal of items effects the overall shape of the collection as a whole. Considering this, to jump immediately to a question of the collection’s (speculative) monetary value is to perform an autopsy of the collection in question. Much like the collectors themselves, a collection must be thought of as a living entity.

The most important role of a CM is a commitment to the collector and their collections as they are, not in terms of the value they might generate. This means the creation of a trust based non-disclosure agreement from the outset of the CM’s relationship with the collector. Nothing less is acceptable. It is essential for the CM to communicate clearly that their obligations are to that of the objects as they relate to the collection, not assessing how they can extract personal profit through ‘Introductory Commissions’ or IC. Such self-serving interests do a disservice to the collection and risk undermining its integrity. Collectors and people within a given trade know that their communities are small and word gets around. A CM must be extremely cognisant of this and provide a safe and secure confidential relation solely between the collector and their collections.

An Analytic Distance

Collecting is an art. As is common in such circumstances, it is often hard for the collector to approach their collection with the distance required to categorize its contents and make informed decisions to clarify its scope, scale, and direction. Once trust is established between the collector and the CM, this is a fundamental goal in the management process. Two people can offer discussion, feedback, and joint analysis.

Through research of the existing records held by the collector, the CM’s first task is to develop the narrative of the collection’s origins. This can often be invaluable to the collector in imagining the future goals for the collection itself. Taking stock of the individual objects that make up the collection, and with the help of the organizational method chosen by the collector, the CM can then provide quantifiable data of the collecting groups that make up the collection. Just as a collection is made up of individual parts, these parts can be organized into subgroups. After defining these fields, the CM can then provide information as to the timelines of these various subgroups, effectively putting a microscope to the various regions and, as a result, holding a mirror up to the collector’s own practice.

The primary outcome of the CM’s role is to provide parallel data to that of the collector’s personal vision, thus allowing a larger view of the collection as an ecosystem instead of the common scenario that sees the collector ‘in the woods’. A positive outcome of this process is often an awareness of the great accomplishment of building a collection and, much like a diary, allows for a retrospective view of the collection. From the process, it’s entirely possible certain fields in the collection are no longer deemed important and new directions are plotted.

Duration Of Involvement

It is important early on in the collector/CM relationship to characterize the dependency that the collector has toward the CM. This is reliant on several factors. What is the collector’s lifestyle and collecting patterns? Do they work from home and are able to bid on items and conduct research into items of interest? Do they travel frequently? Do they take an interest in being able to access the established database created by the CM, or are they more attracted to the most recent acquisition to the collection? Defining these relations, particularly through the analysis of the CM, can help to develop work plans that align with the ebbs and flows of a collector’s patterns and provide a sensible and cost-effective analysis of the project.

Finally, the CM needs to always be aware of the project nature of the job and that their work is done within the timelines and resources that the collector is willing to provide. This means being able to provide accurate estimates as soon as possible regarding the duration of a project and the efficiency to access and make use of the inventory once the CM is complete. The primary value of a well-managed collection is to allow the collector immediate knowledge of what they have at hand, whether it is in order to inform the acquisition of objects or the de-acquisitioning of items that are no longer of interest however exhibit high demand within the current market.

Methods of Inventory

The first thing one must do in developing a collection inventory is understand the scope and scale of the collection.

  • How many items are there?
  • Is the collection focused on a particular type of object (i.e. Golden Era Hollywood lobby cards) or are there a variety of objects related to particular theme or person (i.e. campaign material related to John and Robert Kennedy)?
  • Identifying clear responses to these questions early on can help to pin down the type of inventory method that is appropriate for you.

The collector will then want to evaluate their collecting practices.

  • How long have I been collecting and where am I in my collecting practice ‒ new to it and wanting to expand the collection or spent a fair amount of time collecting and want to take stock of the shape it is taking on.
  • Have been collecting all my life and am interested in donating and de-acquisitioning. Do I have interest from institutions to feature my work in exhibitions, is this something that I am interested in pursuing?

At the centre of this line of inquiry is an assessment of the collector’s personal relation to the collection and whether there is a desire to make parts of the collection public either through exhibitions or publications.
Finally, an assessment of how the inventory method relates to the physical storage of the materials should be considered. Are you looking for a simple inventory on paper or do you want a system that allows for the entrance of locations in order to find objects more easily?
In the beginning, these questions can be overwhelming if one addresses them in a sequence. However, the scope and scale of any collection becomes manageable.

Basic Physical Inventory

This level of collection management is intended for purely internal and personal documentation, ideal for those that simply want their papers in order and would be characterized by binders containing designated sections for each item. In ordering the division there are a few options. However, only a single organizational logic can dictate the various fields (i.e. alphabetical by name or by medium, chronologically by date of purchase or date of objects creation, and so on). Such an option has a relatively low investment cost and requires little maintenance once established. However, the early stages are crucial and it is recommended that there be copies made of all documentation.

An Internal Catalog

The second tier enters into digitization. However, it remains a system that is internal to the collector’s computer operating system. Through programs such as Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Access, the collector and CM would agree upon relevant classification fields that to all objects in the collection. Because the items would then be digital, this method lends itself to more manipulation of collecting fields and objects within the collection. However, such browsing activity is limited to the categories that the user manually creates from the outset.

Collection As Museum

The final stage to collection organization offers a relation to one’s collection that is similar to that of a museum. Such high order programs are installed as a software or, more recently, are cloud based and are appropriate when dealing with larger collections that are in demand to outside organizations in exhibitions or publications.

In recent years, there has been an explosion of these systems offered online. It is important when selecting a program that it is stable and operable for a long period of time. With this in mind, it is worthwhile ensuring that there is a dedicated support staff should one decide to go with a company that has you purchase or subscribe to a program.

It is interesting to note that within a sample of collecting institutions in the Pacific Northwest of North America, there are only a few programs used, in spite of the bloom of systems developed in recent years. Influencing factors in this are budget limitations and the sheer size of collections, as well as the ability of the institution to transition over to a new system quickly and efficiently. There are at least four major programs worth considering.

The value of using high order software comes in the ability of the user to attribute data to a given object. Investing in such software results in a museum grade database that has pre-set labels within which one can insert an item and allows one to associate images, financial records, and historical descriptions as well as facilitate associations with other items within the collection.
Before making a decision on which system to use, it is advisable for either the collector or CM to talk to other collectors who are using the same systems as one is considering.

As can be seen from this series there can be an important and valuable relationship between your collection, your CM, and you.

Spencer W. Stuart holds degrees in Art History from both Carleton University and the Courtauld Institute of Art, UK. After graduating with a Masters in the History of Art from the Courtauld, he worked for Bonhams Auctioneers in both Toronto and New York engaging closely with its North American book department. (

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