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5 of the most influential & powerful female art collectors who shaped the art world

Women have made significant contributions to the art world. But female collectors are no exception in this industry, as they have played a major role in shaping art history as well as museum narrative through collecting and patronage. Without them, the history of art institutions as we know it would be very different. Let’s give praise to these extraordinary women and great collectors of art.

1) Helene Kröller-Müller

Known as of Netherlands’ finest art collectors, Kröller-Müller collected contemporary and post-impressionist dutch artists and developed an appreciation for Van Gogh. She collected around 270 paintings and sketches. It was clear through letters she exchanged with Henk Bremmer, that she wanted to build a museum to make her art collection accessible to everyone. In 1935 she donated her spectacular collection of nearly 12,000 works of art, to the State of the Netherlands. Thanks to her efforts the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands is one of the first modern art museums in Europe. Kröller-Müller collection included works by artists like Picasso, Mondrian, Braque, and Van Gogh.

2) Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

Whitney Museum of American Art

Founder of the famous Whitney Museum of American Art, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was regarded as a modest philanthropist, passionate collector, and well-known patron of the arts. Being born into the wealthy Whitney family, she used her status to advance the arts. Whitney was particularly keen to support female artists and female-only shows, as well as ensure other women were included in group exhibitions. After the Metropolitan Museum of Art turned down her offer to donate her collection of about 600 works of modern American art, she decided to build her own museum. The Whitney Museum was therefore established in 1931, with one of the first collections of 20th-century American art. The museum’s embracing of modernism was a huge institutional change in America, as American art had formerly been seen as provincial.

3) Helen Clay Frick

Daughter of art collector Henry Clay Frick and his wife, Adelaide Howard Childs Frick, Helen was an extraordinary woman. Her family was wealthy enough to have a significant art collection. After her father’s death, she made sure the collection, which included some of the great masterpieces by Gainsborough, Turner, Constable, and Vermeer, among many Old Master works, would become a public museum. She established the Frick Art Reference Library, for the community of art historians and researchers, including over 228,000 art books documenting European and American art.

4) Mary Griggs Burke

Mary Griggs Burke, 1985. Photo by Akira Kinoshita

Collector, scholar, artist, and philanthropist, Mary Griggs Burke developed an art appreciation early in life. She began collecting at a young age when her mother gifted her a Georgia O’Keefe painting, The Black Place No. 1. Later on, she married and traveled with her husband to Japan where they collected extensively.

She accumulated one of the largest collections of Japanese art outside of Japan as well as East Asian Art. The collection contained many excellent examples of Japanese art from woodblock prints, screens, lacquer, calligraphy, textiles, to ceramics, and more. Not only did she collect art, but also had a genuine interest in learning about the pieces she collected. Burke also supported the academia by holding seminars, providing financial support to students, and even opening her homes in New York and Long Island to allow students to study her art collection. When she died, she passed on half of her collection to the Minneapolis Institute of Art and a half to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

5) Peggy Guggenheim

Hulton Getty

The niece of Solomon R. Guggenheim, who founded the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, she became a distinct collector of art and one of the significant figures in the history of art. Guggenheim opened her gallery in New York devoted to promoting Cubist, Surrealism, and abstract art. She also established a modern art gallery in London and began seriously collecting art. But after one year, she decided to focus her efforts on creating a museum. In 1949 she established the Peggy Guggenheim Collection to showcase her impressive collection of modern art. Today it is still one of the biggest art attractions, highlighting Surrealism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism by both European and American artists.

Though all these women come from different backgrounds, their efforts and influences contributed immensely to the art world we engage with today. Without them and their unwavering support for the arts of their time, art history and institutions would not be what they are today.