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 (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.”
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.”
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]