The Art World Works From Home: Morgan Library Director Colin Bailey Is Watching ‘Frasier’ Reruns and Researching JP Morgan’s Collecting Habits
Dinner and drinks in Manhattan is at the top of Bailey's post-lockdown list.
The art world may be on lockdown, but it certainly does not stop. During this unprecedented time, we’re checking in with art-world professionals, collectors, and artists to get a glimpse into how they are working from home.
Like many museum leaders, Colin B. Bailey, director of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, has been immersed in continuous virtual meetings with his board, senior management, and curators. He’s also been keeping himself busy researching the early collecting habits of his museum’s namesake, JP Morgan—including his extensive incunabula and rare manuscripts—for an essay he’s writing.
We spoke with Bailey about his new work-from-home lifestyle and what he does when starts to feel cabin fever creeping in.
Where is your new “office”?
I am working in the upstairs study of our small cottage in Sag Harbor, with a view of Noyack Creek from my window.
What are you working on right now (and were any projects of yours interrupted by the lockdown)?
My constant preoccupation is leading the Morgan at this time of crisis, and formulating—with a very dedicated and able senior management team—the path (or paths) forward. Our planning changes almost every day, as we try and understand when and how we will reopen. At the same time, we have pivoted very quickly toward offering more and more programming online, and this has meant creating new content in record time. I have been so admiring of the creativity and nimbleness of our teams.
When I can, I have turned some of my attention to my writing. I am preparing an essay on the early collecting of John Pierpont Morgan, and specifically on how he came to assemble the greatest collection of incunabula, printed books, illuminated manuscripts, and literary and historical manuscripts in the country. I have been studying him as a collector in the decade leading up to the commission to Charles Follen McKim in 1902 to build the beautiful library on 36th Street. We are in the process of restoring the exterior facade and adding lighting and a small garden to this site.
How has your work changed now that you are doing it from home?
In some ways, there is continuity. I have a full calendar of meetings, by Zoom and Google Hangouts; I touch base with my board president and other trustees regularly. We maintain the regular catchups with department heads, and have increased the frequency of our curatorial and conservation forum. And, because the Morgan is a relatively small institution, I’ve been able to get together virtually with every department, and see how my colleagues are doing. This has been very satisfying for me.
What are you reading, both online and off?
I read Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, published in 1913 (the year of Morgan’s death). Although it was a bestseller in its day—in 1913 it sold 60,000 copies—it was a complete revelation to me. (I’d read House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, but had not encountered this novel). I am quite conflicted about its heroine, Undine Spragg from Apex in the midwest, who takes New York (and then Paris) by storm. She has formidable emotional intelligence, but a ruthlessness that takes your breath away.
Have you visited any good virtual exhibitions recently?
I loved the Morgan’s Alfred Jarry online exhibition!
Have you taken up any new hobbies?
Cooking—every night, night after night… (when will it end?)
If you are feeling stuck while self-isolating, what’s your best method for getting un-stuck?
Taking Louis, our mini-dachshund, into the garden and throwing a tennis ball for him. He is never bored, always excited, and always brings a smile to my face.
What was the last TV show, movie, or YouTube video you watched?
Babylon Berlin, Unorthodox, Mrs. America—and endless reruns of Frasier.
If you could have one famous work of art with you, what would it be?
It would have to be small: Boucher’s Bath of Diana (1742), from the Louvre (last seen at the wonderful Renoir nudes show at the Clark and the Kimbell).
What are you most looking forward to doing once social distancing has been lifted?
Having dinner and drinks at a Manhattan restaurant with friends.
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