History of the Collection at Tufts
Beginning in the nineteenth century with portraits of notable community members, the Tufts University Permanent Collection has since grown to incorporate more than two thousand objects. Through support from donors, strategic acquisitions, and our merger with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (SMFA), the collection has amassed diverse works with origins spanning five continents and over ten millennia. Since the official founding of Tufts University Art Galleries (TUAG) in 1991, our collecting practice has shifted focus to primarily twentieth-century and contemporary art. Today, we maintain our permanent collection to support and facilitate both curricular and extracurricular learning, while simultaneously preserving and presenting institutional histories. Since the collection is part of our daily lives—in our buildings and around our campus—we continue to work towards ensuring that it more fully reflect the Tufts community.
The following timeline presents significant moments across the history of the Tufts University collection.
In 1890, this relief is donated in honor of Edwin Hubbell Chapin, who served as pastor of the Universalist Church in Charlestown and Second Universalist Church of Boston alongside Hosea Ballou senior. Chapin is present at the ofﬁcial opening of Tufts College in August 1856 and delivers its ﬁrst commencement speech. In 1878, the college confers upon him an honorary doctorate.
It is made by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Irish-born American sculptor trained in Paris and Florence, who is known locally for the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on the Boston Common that recognizes the valor of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment (the Civil War’s ﬁrst Black regiment) at the battle of Fort Wagner.
This portrait of an unidentiﬁed woman by Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen (1593–1661) is gifted to Tufts in 1952 by an alumnus who had purchased the work in 1938 from an art dealership in London.
This truncated composition, along with evidence of paint along the edges, leads us to believe the canvas was cut down from a larger size at some point. However, we still do not have enough evidence proving this artwork to be looted, nor do we have information on whom to contact if there is in fact a rightful owner. For now, the piece remains in the Tufts collection.
In 1981, W. Alan Harding gifts a Roman transport amphora (from 70 BCE–79 CE), marking the ﬁrst antiquity gifted in nearly a hundred years since Miner’s inaugural 1895 donation.
Ernest Brummer, along with brothers Joseph and Imre, were dealers in classical antiquities during the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century. Established in Paris and New York in 1906, the Brummer Gallery became a formidable force in the antiquities market, placing objects into major public and private collections around the world. Their inﬂuence was so prominent that the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently established a digital archive of the gallery’s records for public access.
In 1982, Ernest Brummer’s widow, Ella, gifted to Tufts a grave marker in the form of a lekythos. In 2017, the object was conﬁrmed to have arrived at the gallery in 1925 and then sold to an unknown university museum in 1926. Since the object was still in the custody of Ernest Brummer upon his death in 1964, it is unclear if the sale was canceled or where the object was between 1926 and 1982 when it arrived at Tufts.
Edward Merrin is a Tufts alumnus (A50) and Trustee, a philanthropist, and founder of The Merrin Gallery in New York. Between 1982 and 2002, Merrin and his family donated 132 antiquities to Tufts University. While approximately half of these objects entered the Permanent Collection, the other half were accepted as assets. The provenance of these objects, prior to their arrival at Tufts, remains unknown because for many years objects without information detailing their history prior to 1970, the year of the UNESCO Convention, were accepted as gifts. There are currently policies in place across all Tufts schools to prevent acceptance of gifts without provenance.
Edward Merrin served on the Board of Trustees from 1981 to 1992, and as Chair of the Board of Overseers for the Arts. In this capacity, Merrin raised funds for the construction of Aidekman Arts Center and became an advocate for the art gallery. He served as guest curator of a 1992 exhibit which included objects from Inuit, Native American, Mesoamerican, and Andean cultures. Merrin also tapped his considerable network to facilitate gifts of antiquities to Tufts by such collectors as American artist Philip Pearlstein and jewelry designer Noma Copley.
Building on an early interest in the classical art he saw as a child at the Brooklyn Museum, Edward Merrin left his family’s jewelry business to open a gallery on Fifth Avenue in the 1960s. Merrin began with sales of pre-Columbian objects, but he eventually expanded his business to include Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities and became one of the foremost dealers in ancient art.
The Merrin Gallery became the source of many objects that are now in such collections as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Cleveland Museum, and the Getty Museum. In 1999, The Merrin Gallery came under the direction of Edward’s son, Samuel Merrin, a 1985 graduate of Tufts University, who still manages the business today.
In addition to gifts of artwork, Edward Merrin, along with his wife Vivian strengthened many other aspects of Tufts through their philanthropy including Tufts Hillel; teaching and research through endowed professorships and faculty development funds; and ﬁnancial aid through student scholarship support. During his 60th Tufts reunion in 2010, he and Vivian pledged to establish a signiﬁcant new scholarship to be called the Merrin-Bacow Scholarship Fund in honor of former Tufts President Larry Bacow. That gift came to Tufts through their estate in 2022.
The painting Spanish Harlem by Alice Neel (1900–1984) is gifted by her sons, Richard Neel and Hartley S. Neel, MD (M69). This 1938 work is loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2021 for a retrospective of the artist’s career.
Trustee emeritus Plácido Arango donates this major work by renowned abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), recognized for her “soaked-stain” technique that united the painted image and surface. Orange Shapes in Frame remains one of the most important twentieth-century artworks in the collection.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons
In 2014, Tufts purchases this work by the U.S.-based Cuban artist and then- SMFA faculty member María Magdalena Campos-Pons, which was on view in her 2013 exhibition at Tufts, My Mother Told Me. Made possible with partial funding from the Kenneth A. Aidekman Family Foundation, this acquisition builds on the collection’s focus on photography and Latinx contemporary art.
When Tufts University ofﬁcially merges with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA), Boston, in 2016, the Tufts Permanent Collection acquires a small group of objects and contemporary artworks directly connected with benefactors, faculty, or students.
One such object, the portrait of Katherine Ward Lane Weems, depicts the sitter on a couch with her dog curled up by her side. Weems’s father was president of the Board of Trustees at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In the 1920s, Weems began her studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) and went on to a successful career as an artist. Perhaps closest to our hearts is her casting of Bess, the rhinoceros, in front of the SMFA.
As public calls for responsibility and transparency in museums have increased—speciﬁcally around historic collections— audiences are demanding greater acknowledgment of the colonial ideologies at the foundation of some institutions, questioning provenance and modes of acquisition, urging for the return of cultural artifacts to their home nations, and demanding the need for collections to effectively represent the diversity of our contemporary communities.
Alumnae Hall murals removed
In 2019, responding to campus-wide calls for equitable representation at Tufts, the two 1955-era murals in Alumnae Hall that purportedly celebrated the university’s ﬁrst 100 years are removed. They are widely criticized for their exclusionary, ahistorical, all-white depiction of the campus community, despite the enrollment of Black students since the late nineteenth-century.
Public Art Committee (PAC)
Founded by TUAG after the removal of the Alumnae Hall murals, the PAC is a university-wide committee designed to ensure that campus public art remains diverse and reﬂective of Tufts’ full community, alongside the care and maintenance of existing artworks and establishing protocols for the commission of new artworks.
Tufts Permanent Collection digitized
The Tufts Permanent Collection is made fully accessible online via a museum database designed using PastPerfect collections management software.
Tufts Acquisition Committee (TAC)
TAC is founded by a group of dedicated supporters to actively diversify Tufts’ collection through the annual purchase of artwork by BIPOC, women, and LGBTQ+ artists.
Tufts’ Data Intensive Studies Center (DISC) and TUAG convene an interdisciplinary student group for a weekend Datathon, with lectures by museum practitioners on diversity and related issues in Tufts’ collection. Looking at such trends as artist gender, donor nationality, or objects’ culture of origin, these student volunteers produced data visualizations to explore questions of diversity in the collection—and how to interpret collections as holistic entities, not just as individual objects.