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In Collecting 101, UMass Amherst students learn inner workings of museum acquisition

The class recently took a field trip to Boston to visit Newbury Street art galleries and the ICA’s permanent collection

University of Massachusetts Amherst students Micah Schmerling and Jade Shum inspect an artwork at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

It’s one thing to like a piece of art. It’s another to acquire it for a museum collection.

Just ask Jade Shum, a 19-year-old art history and anthropology major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In Collecting 101: Acquiring Art for the UMCA (University Museum of Contemporary Art), she’s learning the inner workings of museum acquisition. By the end of the semester, the class will choose an artwork to purchase for the museum’s permanent collection.

“We have to think of everyone’s taste. How does it spark for other people?,” Shum said during a class trip to the Institute of Contemporary Art last weekend. Students had spent the morning looking at photographs at galleries on Newbury Street. At the ICA, they examined that museum’s permanent collection.


Shum focused on choosing an image from among several Gordon Parks photographs at Robert Klein Gallery. “UMass has a connection to W.E.B. Du Bois,” she said of the scholar, writer, and civil rights activist. Du Bois left his papers to the school, which has a W.E.B. Du Bois Center. “Gordon Parks was also a civil rights advocate.”

There are many things to consider when buying a museum piece, said Loretta Yarlow, UMCA’s former director and one of the class’s three teachers. Factors include the need to fill in existing gaps in the collection, specifically works by women and artists of color; storage space; the UMCA’s role as a research and study collection; and connections to academic departments.

UMass Amherst student Krystal Otis (left) and Professor Loretta Yarlow inspect Leslie Hewitt’s “Untitled (Square)” at the ICA, Boston, Oct. 28, 2023. Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

“We want to inspire students to think about museum work, to look at original works of art, and to consider what goes into building a permanent collection,” Yarlow said.

Collecting 101 launched in 2021. The Mead Art Museum at Amherst College and the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College have similar programs. That first year, the UMass class acquired works by three artists: Alison Saar, Leonardo Drew, and Nicole Eisenman. The 2022 group purchased a Kiki Smith print.


The course focuses on works on paper, which tend to be less expensive than paintings and sculptures. This year, students have $10,000-$15,000 to spend from the Lois B. Torf Collecting Fund endowment that funds the class, said Jennifer Lind, UCMA’s registrar and collections manager, who co-teaches Collecting 101.

UMCA interim director Amanda Herman completes the teaching team, which chose five artists who work in photography and an array of photos for the nascent curators to study. Groups of two or three students each took on one of the artists: Parks, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Lyle Ashton Harris, and Christian Boltanski.

An artwork, Herman said, “has to loop back to the collection so a story can be told.”

Krakow Witkin Gallery co-owner Andrew Witkin speaks to students from Collecting 101 about the work of Lyle Ashton Harris, one of the five artists whose work is being considered for purchase by the class. Amanda Herman

Krystal Otis, 37, a junior majoring in studio art, is in the Cindy Sherman group; they viewed her photos at Krakow Witkin Gallery. A groundbreaking photographer, Sherman began exploring identity and gender, playing characters for her own pictures in the 1970s.

“Social issues surrounding the exploration of gender identity are still very relevant,” Otis said. “Seeing the gender fluidity in her work may help some students feel more welcome and educate others.”

Senior Juliano Wahab, a computer science and marketing major, said he intends to start an augmented reality art fair in Qatar, where he spent part of his youth, after he graduates. He is on the Laurie Simmons team. At Krakow Witkin, he saw her photos of dollhouse-scale domestic scenes.


“The scary element for me is that it was clearly staged,” said Wahab, 21. “You can tell someone is there, but you can’t see them.”

Before they got to Boston, the students had only seen online images of the works they might purchase. But it’s always better to see art in person, Lind said.

“Scale is huge. You can’t tell on a computer,” she said. “Standing in front of it, you see how intimate it can be. The Cindy Sherman works look like family photos. Then there’s the materiality of it. The ink on the paper.”

Possible selections for the collection include two sets of photogravures — etchings made from photographic negatives — “which have a rich, luscious surface you can’t see on a screen,” Lind said.

Collecting 101 students (from left) Juliano Wahab, Jade Shum, and Eryn Flynn, study a collection of photographs by Gordon Parks at the Robert Klein Gallery in Boston, while UMCA intern Owen Embury (in back) looks on. Shum and Flynn are the team presenting Parks’s work for consideration to purchase at the UMass Amherst University Museum of Contemporary Art public event, Vote for Art!, on Nov. 14. Amanda Herman

Most of the artworks on offer are in series. But Shum has to settle on just one Gordon Parks photo. She said she was drawn to an image from Mobile, Ala., shot in 1956, depicting an older Black couple on a porch.

“It’s melancholic. You feel a sense of community and their love for each other, but there’s an overarching tiredness,” said Shum.

“Curators have to make a presentation to their acquisitions committee,” Yarlow said. “They talk about the art, and how it fills in the budget, and why this [artwork] now.”

On Nov. 14, the students will make a public presentation, each group arguing for their chosen artwork. The event will be livestreamed. Anyone may vote; the presentation that wins will determine the acquisition.



Tuesday, Nov. 14, 5-6 p.m. Randolph W. Bromery Center for the Arts, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 151 Presidents Drive, Amherst, and livestreamed.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at Follow her on Instagram @cate.mcquaid.