From the Desk of Artistic Director Jonathan Pell

by Megan Meister

A friend recently asked me about how I got started collecting masks (I have almost 300 of them now, mostly African, Asian and Oceanic, but I also have quite a few  Spanish Colonial and Venetian carnival masks.)

This is the story.

In 1973 I bought a contemporary Guatemalan dance mask on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, and it was the beginning of a slide down a very slippery slope…

Over the years the collection grew, and now it has taken over great deal of the house.  I have them in every room, but have tried to keep them out of the bedroom and sunroom. Slowly but surely though just a few have crept onto the walls even in there.  Many of them are quite small, so it isn’t quite as overwhelming as it might sound.

I will tell you a story, though.

About three or four years ago I was once again in Santa Fe and attended the annual ethnographic art show, a major event with dealers from around the world.   I had stopped to admire a Lega mask (a tribe from the Congo that has a particular appeal to me for some inexplicable reason) and trying to detain me with small talk the dealer mentioned that it was from a particular collection of someone that I know.  I stopped in my tracks, since I have known this man professionally for almost 35 years (he is now retired, but was an important artists’ manager at a large agency in New York.)   I mumbled something about knowing him but that I hadn’t known that he collected African art, and the dealer said “Oh yes, he has one of the major collections in the United States.”  Anyway, when I got back to Dallas I called up my old colleague and told him the story.  We laughed about it, and he said that it was strange that neither of us knew about the others interest in African art, and he promised to send me a catalogue from a museum show that featured part of his collection, and invited me to come by his apartment the next time I was in New York.  Well, amazingly, something came up out of the blue and I had to go to New York unexpectedly about two weeks later.   I called him, of course, and he invited me over to see his collection.

When I walked into his typical (i.e. small) one bedroom apartment on New York’s upper West Side I saw the most terrifying sight.   I saw the nightmare of what could be my future—it was almost like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

Everywhere I looked, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, amassed like stacks of old newspapers were piles of masks, woodcarvings, native costumes, headdresses, spears and shields.  He wasn’t a collector—he was a hoarder!   There were some really amazing pieces, but nothing was displayed or illuminated or showcased in any way.

I was simply horrified—because I could see myself living like that if I weren’t careful.

In an epiphany, I realized that since I could never acquire all of anything, no matter how much I specialized or limited my collection, then I might as well stop now.  Right then, in that moment, I decided to go “cold turkey” and stopped buying masks.

Now to be perfectly honest, I have “fallen off the wagon” a few times since then, but I have become more discerning and have only bought a few small things on my travels.

I am now at a point, though, where I am beginning to feel the need to de-accession, not continue to collect.

I wonder how long this feeling will last?

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