The Met Has a Lot of Art. Why Does It Keep Buying More?

A museum's "permanent" collection is in fact constantly evolving. Now, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a new section on its website called MetCollects that showcases a sampling of its continuing acquisitions.

For a grand old trove like the Met, buying any art at all can seem like gilding the Monet lily. The New York institution is a non-profit with hundreds of thousands of works in storage. Why not stick with that? The Met's new way of introducing people to its purchases suggests the answer: Because we had to have it.

What, they had to have a 14th-century Madonna and Child for $45 million in 2004? Yes. Take a closer look . It's exquisite.

In the three entries now online -- a new one is added every month -- a slideshow of the new artwork is accompanied by an introductory text and, in two instances, a video as well. In one, an introduction to Francois Gerard's portrait of Talleyrand , Keith Christiansen, the chairman of the Met's department of European Paintings, bounces excitedly around the work.

"Isn't it interesting that virtually all trace of Napoleon has been wiped out of the picture?" he asks.

You nod along, in spite of yourself. Yes. Yes, it is interesting!

In the second video, the artist does the introduction himself. William Kentridge speaks about "The Refusal of Time," a sound-and-video installation the Met just acquired.

"We're not going to escape our journey to the black hole in the end, however fast we dance and run on the way," says Kentridge in a voice-over. "But that dance and the run is what it's all about."

I know. But it actually goes a long way toward explaining what the somewhat opaque work is about.

MetCollects situates new art in the context of the museum's collection. But there's another reason the new page is important: transparency. Museums' collections are for the public, and are sustained in part by ticket sales. Putting the Met's acquisitions -- some of them, at any rate -- out in the open says that the museum doesn't exist in a vacuum and that audience engagement is vital to its long-term success.

The Met isn't alone in this public display of collection. But MetCollects is perhaps the most compelling, accessible and visually striking example of the practice so far.

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