EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, AMON CARTER MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART
Interview by Hector Cantú
Andrew J. Walker is executive director at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth. The museum’s collection includes paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and photographs. Before joining the Amon Carter, Walker, who grew up in Pittsburgh, held curatorial positions at the Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri History Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Did you collect anything as a youngster?
I sure did. I don’t know if you remember those die-cast cars called Corgi cars. Corgi was the British manufacturer of these beautiful cars. I still have them. My interest in sculpture came subtlety enough through not an unfamiliar realm. I was a child who caught wind of the action-figure world that started, really, with Star Wars. I always say they were little sculptures to me. That was the first time where it was a goal to get every one. I still have a lot of those.
What do you collect today?
I got into art when I started working at museums in college. I started with works on paper, mostly Associated American Artists lithographs that were popular during the WPA [Works Progress Administration] period. They started doing lithographs that were affordable to people in that era. Artists like Joe Jones, Adolf Dehn, Aaron Bohrod. They did editions of 250, which is a big run, and you could buy them for $5 so you could have an original work on your wall. So that’s where I tipped my toe in because for a couple of hundred bucks, you could own one. And now, today, I’m very committed as a museum director in Fort Worth to supporting the emerging local scene, artists like Jay Wilkinson and Lauren Childs.
What was the first important piece you helped acquire for a museum?
It happened pretty early on at the Art Institute of Chicago. I joined the American art team there in 1996 and shortly thereafter, I was brought on to help in the acquisition of an Albert Bierstadt painting. As I remember, it was the first painting over $1 million that the American department had purchased. It’s a big scene from 1863, Mountain Brook, an interior forest scene. It’s a gorgeous picture. So that was pretty thrilling.
And what’s the most important piece you’ve helped acquire?
It would certainly be for the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. We acquired – for the museum’s 50th anniversary, so that would have been in 2011 – Mary Cassatt’s Woman Standing, Holding a Fan. It’s important because it’s a unique work in distemper, and it was when she was working nearly day-to-day with Edgar Degas and her own innovation of exploring that medium of distemper. It’s an important work and beautiful. We discovered subsequently it was indeed the work she included in the fourth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris. Degas had invited her to participate in that exhibition. It reinforced their combined innovation. So that made it an important piece for her.
What are red flags when it comes to acquiring important art?
You have to look at authenticity and condition. There are lots of times, if you find something at auction or in a reputable gallery, that authenticity is less of a concern, although you want to do your due diligence. It’s rare in my experience that you actually are given a fake, something that’s not what it purports to be. You’re kind of in sketchy territory when that happens.
In other words, I’m hearing most museums don’t deal with sketchy sources.
I mean there are times you take a risk and go see something that may be coming unconventionally to your notice, but you wouldn’t fit in that realm as a matter of course. It’s more of an exception that you explore because you never quite know. But for collectors, I would say have that relationship with dealers that you’re working with or the auction houses you’re working through, such that there’s a level of trust.
So it sounds like museums have very few untraditional sources of art.
For the most part. I mean, as professionals, you’re always attuned to opportunity. I imagine most curators have a story, so my story is there is an artist, actually a sculptor, named Harriet Hosmer. She ended up in St. Louis because she couldn’t study anatomy at Harvard. Washington University at the time had a medical school and so she came to St. Louis to study anatomy, which would be important for a sculptor. As a result, she had a kind of patron relationship with this person who brought her. So one day, I get a message from the front desk at the museum that says there were people here over the weekend, they have Zenobia in Chains by Harriet Hossmer. They had some pictures and they looked pretty good. My boss told me, ‘Go out there and see it.’ It was in their junk store. And he said take the truck behind you in case it’s real so you can bring it back to the museum. They offered it for a certain amount of money and we thought it was fair. We found out through research that it had been actually exhibited at the Saint Louis Art Museum on a number of occasions.
How do you know you have a good collection?
It ultimately comes down to quality … the quality and excellence within the works of art that are acquired. But it often takes various pathways for any institution to build that sense of quality.
What’s the most important piece of advice you can give a collector?
Do your research. I don’t mean that to sound patronizing, but it’s so important to do your research. If you see something that you just love, take the time to fact check its provenance, to look at its exhibition history, to make sure you ask the right questions about conservation and quality, to sit down and read about that artist. It’s really about having the patience and resources to make an informed decision.
This article appears in the Winter 2019-2020 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.