Inge Reist’s father was not interested in the subject of money. A medievalist in the comp lit department at Columbia, he reserved a “certain disdain for business and the stock market,” according to his daughter, and preferred instead to spend his time thinking about more meaningful things. “I think,” Ms. Reist said, “it was just the culture among academics to have this disdain for things that related to commerce.”
Ms. Reist began her career in the academy too, as an art history graduate student at Columbia. But since 1980, she has worked at the Frick Collection, the small but stunning museum that houses the collection of steel magnate Henry Clay Frick. In her current role at the Frick’s Art Reference Library, Ms. Reist heads a research center dedicated to a cause her father might have found questionable. Namely, she is the director of the Center for the History of Collecting in America—essentially a think tank that was established in 2007 in order to encourage scholars to pursue a field within art history that Ms. Reist and her colleagues feel has been largely overlooked by the academy.
The history of art collecting and patronage, according to Ms. Reist, is in many ways the history of art itself, and to study art from an aesthetic point of view without studying the material conditions under which it was paid for, displayed and preserved is to ignore something quite essential.