Guardian of a cultural and historical legacy
New York — If you think keeping track of one family's art possessions is difficult, consider Sarah Elliston Weiner's job as curator of art properties at Columbia University. Ms. Weiner has to keep track of nearly 3,000 paintings and sculptures that are distributed among dozens of buildings on its Morningside and Washington Heights campuses, as well as the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory in Palisades, N.Y., and Arden House, the conference center in Harriman, N.Y. It is no easy task, she says, to act as guardian over such a valuable art collection, whose items range from a 200-year-old Dutch clock to a roll of silk-screened wallpaper by Andy Warhol.
``There's much to be done,'' she said in an interview in her campus office. ``Pictures age. Canvases become brittle and require extreme care. Others suffer actual damage and a conservator must be called in. ... Outdoor bronze sculptures have to be washed and waxed every summer, and some of them require extensive treatment to halt corrosion in the metal.''
Art properties have been accumulating at Columbia since 1756. In that year, the two-year-old university, then known as King's College, was given a portrait of the Rev. Dr. Samuel Johnson, its first president. Since then, gifts of art have been swelling the collection. These gifts have included paintings by John Singleton Copley, Rembrandt, Peale, and John Singer Sargent, and drawings by Fernand Leger, Henri Matisse, and Thomas Hart Benton.
Weiner is well-qualified for her job, with a PhD degree from Columbia's Department of Art History and Archaeology and extensive background in museum work.
In addition to her conservation duties, she also manages and inventories the collection, and oversees all gift transactions to the university which are related to works of art. And she is responsible for finding ways to display the art objects.
Many of the objects, she explains, embody the University's historical and cultural legacy. There are, of course, portraits of illustrious Columbians, including trustees, presidents, and professors, but also renderings of great moments in the university's history, such as the 1939 visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England.
``The most fascinating thing about this job is its diversity,'' she says. ``I am involved with the whole university community as well as with the art and art conservation world. It involves a lot of doing and a lot of learning, which I enjoy and find fascinating.''