Growing a Collection: In Scope, By Votes, Through Conversation

A museum’s collection can seem mysterious, built over decades of donations, purchases and commissions, driven by an enigmatic curatorial eye. On exhibit, the collection appears complete, carefully woven so as to show no sign of dangling or missing threads.

In reality, an institutional collection is an ever-evolving organism, nurtured by museum leaders, trustees and patrons. Last Saturday, the National Museum of Wildlife Art explored the latter form of cultivation by inviting patrons with a more modern aesthetic to pick and choose from a selection of contemporary works.

“We are an actively collecting museum, which means we can constantly expand on the museum’s mission through visual language,” said Bronwyn Minton, Associate Curator of Art and Research. “The collection is becoming richer.”


The Blacktail Gala drew inspiration from the Wildlife Art Museum’s long-standing Collector’s Circle, a patron level requiring participation of $8,000 and above. Every summer, the Collector’s Circle convenes and spends the money they’ve raised through their membership dues on masterworks earmarked by the Museum’s Collection Committee. A lively, beloved affair, the Collector’s Circle focuses on the full spectrum of work that the museum collects, from historic masters to living artists. “Wildlife art is not a genre, it crosses genres,” Bronwyn said. “People are making wildlife art in all different styles.”

Thus open to fresh ideas, the Museum is courting contemporary art related to wildlife, an initiative led by its curatorial team and their travels to international art fairs like Art Basel Miami Beach and Frieze. At fairs, they scout modern discourses on animals by emerging and established sculptors, painters, video and performance artists. For the Blacktail Gala, Bronwyn presented a pack of five artists working in different mediums, at different stages of their careers, on different issues related to wildlife and nature. Emerging artist Shawn Smith creates pixelated wood busts of birds while established video visionary Leslie Thornton translates footage of animals in the wild into kaleidoscopic musings projected in places like Times Square.

On Saturday night, every piece available for purchase greeted guests upon arrival in Johnston Hall. After studying the works with champagne flutes in hand, patrons migrated to Cook Auditorium, where Bronwyn introduced each artist and each piece. Adam Harris, the Petersen Curator of Art and Research, sketched the rules of play: charged with spending the kitty generated by ticket sales, guests were asked to vote for their favorite work in successive rounds, with the highest votes determining the pieces purchased.

Over a delectable dinner by chef Jarrett Schwartz and estate wines from Niner Wine Estates, the voting intensified with each round. Tables jockeyed for their top picks as the purse-strings tightened. In the fifth, final round, a patron offered an additional donation to ensure the purchase of Ruth Marshall’s Tiger Cub, a knitted facsimile of a real pelt, and JenMarie Zeleznak’s Constant Cycles Strung Together, a watercolor pencil drawing musing on astronomy and animal behavior.

Buoyed by buying, patrons celebrated the success of the night over coffee cocktails and sweet treats by Persephone Bakery in the Members’ Lounge, with Tucker and Kristin Smith serenading. All told, the inaugural affair contributed to the museum’s collection but also its standing as a place open to fresh conversations around art.