Follow that Art! Balcomb Greene's Six-Sided Planes comes to the de Young

Every piece of art in the Museums has a history. Whether an artwork has a long and storied past or was recently created by a living artist, its journey doesn’t end when it arrives on our doorstep. 

This is the first in a series of posts that will follow a single work of art, Balcomb Greene’s painting Six-Sided Planes, as it moves through the Museums on its way to exhibition. Greene was an artist and intellectual, a founding member of the American Abstract Artists, and a leading writer and proponent of abstraction.

We will follow the painting’s progress from its first entrance into the Museums via the registration department, through the conservation and curatorial review, onto the process of approval by the Board of Trustees, and finally the public display of the painting in the galleries.

Our first stop is the registration department, where the painting is first received and stored:


Balcomb Greene (American, 1904–1990). Six-Sided Planes, 1937. Oil on canvas. Potential Museum Purchase. L11.16

My name is Stephen Lockwood and I am the senior registrar here at the Fine Arts Museums. I process and track incoming artworks and shepherd their way through the acquisition process. The acquisitions process involves curators, registrars, conservators and our Board of Trustees.

There are two basic ways that new art is acquired for the collections: by direct gift or bequest, or by purchase. Ideas for new purchases come from the curatorial department, occasionally in consultation with trustees and members of the community. While some curatorial departments have endowment funds specifically for acquisitions, the Museums also have funds dedicated to particular periods or genres of art history, or geographic regions. One such fund is the Maurice and Harriett Gregg American Abstract Art Fund, which is funding the acquisition of the Balcomb Greene painting.

The painting was offered for sale by a prominent gallery in New York City, so I contacted the gallery to arrange for transportation and insurance to bring the artwork to San Francisco. Pending the Board of Trustees’ approval of the purchase, the painting is on loan to the Museums from the gallery. When the picture arrived, I carefully unpacked and checked the painting for any transit damage. Although no transit damage occurred (good news!), I did notice that the top left and right corners of the canvas were slack. I also inspect every new artwork for insects or other pests that could spread once inside the building (none observed!). The registration office at the de Young has a specially designated receiving area for inspecting, unpacking and examining new artworks.

Next, I created an electronic record for the painting in our collections management database and attached a paper tag to the painting. The electronic record assigned a loan number to the object (L11.16), which will be converted to an accession number (for example, 2011.16) once the acquisition is approved. The information on the paper tag can be searched, updated and tracked in our database as it moves through the Museums. We keep active location records for over 128,000 artworks in our two museum buildings and associated storage areas. In addition to the location of new artworks, I also record basic information such as artist, title, media, dimensions and any previous owners or exhibitions noted on the back of the frame.

Check back soon for our next post when we'll visit the paintings conservation lab to learn more about the painting’s materials and condition, in particular those slack corners!

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