Recent Acquisitions: Top 10 Fascinating Museum Acquisitions of 2012

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From "In Masks the Times Proceed: The Works of Make-Up Artist Wolfgang Utz"

Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.

The closing of the calendar year offers a moment of contemplation in the world, even that of collecting. Recent Acquisitions won't turn a whole year old until January 24, 2013, which will be commemorated with a panel at the Commonwealth Club, but I don't need another month to present my list.

See also:

Amazing Collection of Old Muni Fast Passes

1936 Scrapbook of a Mickey Mouse Inker

Most weeks, I visit several museums, historical societies, and libraries to meet with curators, archivists, and publicists. More often than not, I'm presented with a few options and told to choose what I please, and choose I do, based on fast and loose criteria. I like things that are important, sentimental, troubling, or highly amusing. I have some professional experience in this (I hold a graduate degree in history, and I was the research curator at the New York Public Library), but in truth I try to look beyond my own cognitive illusions: I long for Recent Acquisitions to start a conversation, one that begins with the act of reading an article and then sharing that knowledge, or seeking out more, whether that be through research or a visit to the cultural institution. (In my wildest fantasies, both occur.)

My favorite acquisitions, however, tend to be "the one." When I asked the curator (or whoever manages the collections) for a list of recent acquisitions, there are times in which I'm only given one option. Sure, there had been others, but to this person, there was only one. It electrified their world. They showed pictures of it on their phone at parties and offered lengthy explanations about it with far-flung family members. The following year's calendar is suddenly shaped by it, by the date it would be done with conservation work and ready to be digitized or exhibited. They speak about it with the kind of excitement most reserve for chubby babies and freakishly fast cars. In short: It made everything possible, and everything better.

Truly, each acquisitions excites me, but all of the ones I've chosen here were, for some curator or an entire museum, the one.

10. John F. Kennedy and the Holy Grail of PEZ Dispensers

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It was one thing for Khrushchev to treat Kennedy like a child during the 1961 Vienna Summit, but it was quite another for PEZ to do so.The Austrian candymaker welcomed the American president to Vienna, where they produced their mechanical pocket dispenser and dry-straight-edged block candy, with a sweet gift: A custom satin-lined case contained a donkey head for Kennedy, gold for Jackie, and Bozo the Clown for Caroline. The President would have none of it. According to an inventory of gifts received, which included material for a skirt and a vase, the present from PEZ was the only one rejected. Under description, the document now housed in the archives of the JFK Presidential Library in Boston, Massachusetts offers the following instructions: "To be returned to the sender with thanks by order of the Secret Service." For the Pez Museum in Burlingame, the acquisition was the "Holy Grail of Pez dispensers."

9. Museum Pays Homage to Women Bookbinders

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Tim James says he's more interested in the stories of people than equipment, but he nonetheless spent a decade pursuing the holy grail for bookbinders: The Smyth #3 Book Sewing Machine. "The nice thing about collecting old cast iron is that people will practically pay you to take it away," and so Wilson only had to pay shipping for the American Bookbinders Museum's recent acquisition. When the Smyth arrived, it was the journeymen who set them up, but their years of careful study were of no use. According to Wilson, by the end of the 19th century, women dominated the bindery workforce, outnumbering men four to one. They were better sewers, and far cheaper, with a few exceptions. "The woman that ran the machine would have been the highest paid woman in the bindery, and would have earned more money than some of the lesser skilled men," Wilson explained, and encourages visitors to complement a visit to the museum with a quick stop down the street, to the old headquarters of the Women's Bookbinder Union. A mural in the lobby depicts a woman sewing a book on none other than a Smyth #3.

8. Stanford Curator Seeks Mexican Works on Paper

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"It is really unfortunate that Mexico tends to get compartmentalized or left out of the discourse of modernism," Elizabeth Mitchell explained. When the curator at Stanford's Cantor Center saw Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) Man and Woman , one of his earliest and strongest works, she had to have it. Modernist artists sought to shed the vestiges of the past, rejecting the conventions of representational art in favor of their own perspective, color, and composition. The history of modernism is complex, but tends to focus on Europe and America, often ignoring their interaction with Mexican artists.

7. A Decade Later, SFMOMA Gets What It Wants

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When Janet Bishop first hung Marget Kilgallen's Untitled on the second floor gallery of SFMOMA, the work was on loan, but the curator of painting and sculpture hoped it would become a permanent part of the collection. For nearly a decade, the museum has sought a substantial work by Kilgallen (1967-2001), one of the most important artists to emerge from the Mission School. Kilgallen was a prolific artist, but her body of work is limited: She died of cancer at the age of 33. An acclaimed artist at the time, interest in her work has not waned on a local or international level. Untitled strengthens the museum's collection of Mission School artists, and speaks to them with varying levels of specificity.

6. The de Young's Contemporary Māori Cloak

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Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Contemporary Māori Cloak

Every month, a new artist-in-residence calls the de Young home, but they rarely place a work with the museum. At the end of Glenda Joyce Hape's residency, she returned to New Zealand, but curator Christina Hellmich kept the Contemporary Māori Cloak the artist had made form flax harvested in Golden Gate Park. In the Oceana Gallery, it sits near other Māori works, some of which were the first to enter the museum in 1895 as a part of the inaugural collection; it is the first contemporary expression of Māori weaving in the museum. Hellmich hoped that visitors use Hape's gift to "connect the historic Māori works in the collection with contemporary Māori art and culture."

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