Private Collections: The Federal Reserve Bank

We're asked from time to time to define an art collection (how would we develop one, what makes it valuable, and what does it involve). Since that's a fluid question to answer, our best response is to discuss examples of collections we know.

 Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008). Sling-Shots Lit #3, 1985. Lithograph and screenprint on paper and assemblage with sailcloth, Mylar, wooden lightbox, fluorescent light fixture, aluminum moveable window shade system and Plexiglas bars. 84 1/2 x 50 1/4 x 12 1/2 in. (214.6 x 127.6 x 31.8 cm). This work is from an edition of 25 plus seven artist’s proofs.

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008). Sling-Shots Lit #3, 1985. Lithograph and screenprint on paper and assemblage with sailcloth, Mylar, wooden lightbox, fluorescent light fixture, aluminum moveable window shade system and Plexiglas bars. 84 1/2 x 50 1/4 x 12 1/2 in. (214.6 x 127.6 x 31.8 cm). This work is from an edition of 25 plus seven artist’s proofs.

 Helen Frankenthaler. Four Color Space, 1966. Auctioned at Sotheby's in 2017 for $591,000.

Helen Frankenthaler. Four Color Space, 1966. Auctioned at Sotheby's in 2017 for $591,000.

We continue our series on private art collections with one that is not so private,  belonging to the Fine Art Program of the Federal Reserve Board, the collection was established in 1975 by former Chairman Arthur F. Burns (responding to a White House directive encouraging federal partnership with the arts). Consisting of over 1,400 works of art donated by private individuals, it is one of the largest collections in the United States in terms of breadth and placement. In a 1971 letter from the White House, Richard Nixon wrote, "It is my urgent desire that the growing partnership between Government and the arts continue to be developed to the benefit of both and more particularly to the benefit of the people of America." Mr. Burns saw this opportunity to enhance the environment of the Board and provide visitors with a memorable visual experience. He created the Fine Arts Program to collect and care for artwork and to organize exhibitions for display in Marriner S. Eccles building (20th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W., in Washington, D.C.).

The Federal Reserve Bank receives gifts of artwork and funds to purchase works of art and depends on these donations to build its collection, which includes drawings, paintings, photographs, prints, and sculptures. The donors to the collection include private individuals (Nelson Rockefeller, who donated Helen Frankenthaler's “Three Color Space") and artists (Robert Kushner).

Growing out of Washington DC, the collection includes all twelve districts of the Federal Reserve Bank: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, San Francisco. The collection is largely regional, focusing primarily on contemporary artists, for example, the Kansas City collection acquired a painting by local color field painter, Douglass Freed.

 Douglass Freed. Epoch. Federal Reserve Bank Commission, Kansas City, Missouri

Douglass Freed. Epoch. Federal Reserve Bank Commission, Kansas City, Missouri

A recent enquiry with the Washington DC branch of the Federal Reserve Board for a tour of the collection was met with a denial on the basis of understaffing. Likewise, a request for a list of artworks in the collection remains unanswered. It's a shame that artworks housed in our Government institutions are shuttered to the public our government is mandated to serve. One can only hope that our public servants who walk the halls that house these works are uplifted and somehow manage to enjoy the artwork of some of America's finest artists.