Art History Professor at UMass Amherst Explores Impact of Collecting

AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts art history professor Monika Schmitter is the kind of academic a gallery owner could love. In her work she explores how collectors play a large part in determining artistic movements. In fact, she says, during certain historical periods they have even changed the social and political order.

Schmitter''s chief area of concentration is Venice during the Renaissance, where she says collecting art reached an early apex.

"Traditionally scholars have seen art collecting in Venice during the Renaissance as a static activity in which the ruling elite, or patrician class, set the tastes," says Schmitter. "In my research, I''ve found that there was actually a good deal more input from the non-patrician classes. By having an impact on the art-collecting habits of Venetian society, this group of wealthy non-patricians showed that the myth of social hierarchy was actually much more changeable than the patrician class preferred to admit. Perhaps even more importantly, they set trends and innovations that were later adopted by their so-called social betters."

Among the innovations brought about by this wealthy non-patrician class, was the introduction into collections of modern sculpture (a medium not previously given much attention by Venetian collectors), natural animal and mineral specimens (a forerunner of "scientific" collecting), and contemporary paintings influenced by Central Italian as well as native Venetian styles. Once these innovations were adopted by the patrician class, they had a lasting impact on the development of Venetian, and hence Western, art.

Schmitter says that she uses an interdisciplinary approach in her work, drawing on elements of anthropology, sociology, and psychology. "The fascinating thing in doing so is that you find art history is much more than a list of artists and titles. It becomes a reflection of broader social issues that includes everything from economics to politics."

In part for her research, and in part for her acclaimed teaching skills, Schmitter was recently awarded a Lilly Teaching Fellowship from the Center for Teaching and the Provost''s Office for the year 1999-2000. As one of eight fellows University-wide, she will be able to decrease her courseload for the year in order to pursue projects aimed at enhancing her teaching skills.

"Since joining our faculty in 1997, Professor Schmitter''s teaching in our program has been a central focus of her thinking as an art historian," says art history chair Anne Mochon. "She has shown real imagination and creativity in structuring a broad range of courses at all levels. She''s a credit to the department and to the University."