But the shift in focus is more striking when the museum has fewer holdings in the first place. And all it takes is one big gift to move the needle.
In 2013 the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., began receiving a gift of 235 contemporary works from Barbara and Ted Alfond.
“Previously, we had about 20 works from the 21st century,” said the museum’s director, Ena Heller, who noted that the Cornell was previously best known for its holdings of old masters and 18th- and 19th-century art. “Now we have this other bookend.”
The Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art — including works by Vik Muniz, Tracey Emin and Alfredo Jaar — is so significant that it represents 75 percent of all the works that have entered the museum’s collection in the last decade.
Some of the collection was recently on view in an exhibition called “Fractured Narratives: A Strategy to Engage,” and Ms. Heller said the Cornell’s status as a teaching museum made the gift especially “relevant,” a word that frequently comes up with institutions moving toward contemporary art.
“It’s art that’s being made today and that resonates more with the 18-to-21-year-old group than what was made 300 years ago,” she said. “We need to show where we are now.”
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