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Subscription Campaigns: Contributions in Support of Community

April 11—September 1, 2018

Chester Harding (1792-1886), Hannah Adams, ca. 1827, Oil on canvas, Gift of several ladies, 1833.
Chester Harding (1792-1886), Hannah Adams, ca. 1827, Oil on canvas, Gift of several ladies, 1833.

Proponents of the internet believe that crowd-sourcing is a recent, technologically driven innovation. However, throughout the nineteenth-century Bostonians frequently pooled financial resources for various causes in a process popularly called “subscription.” Over the years, this term, an elastic construct, has been applied to a variety of ambitious undertakings and is, in fact, still embraced today. Following precedents set centuries earlier, writers, publishers, and other groups of individuals have achieved lofty goals, unattainable in isolation, that utilize this process of coordinated investment while simultaneously fostering a sense of community through participation in a shared vision.

Founded as a subscription library, the Boston Athenæum is itself the result of one such subscription. Over its history, this institution has continued to prosper thanks to the generosity of its proprietors, members, and staff who have worked together to achieve what, in retrospect, may seem audacious goals. The unique concept of the subscription, in all its fascinating forms, has empowered these individuals to collectively affect a desired outcome that is the result of a commitment of private funds undergirded by a shared emotional belief in the proposed cause. As a result, groups of individuals have acquired works of art and publications on behalf of the Athenæum, significantly advanced its building campaigns, and supported the institution’s operations, all for a common good.

With this subscription concept central to its own remarkable genesis narrative, the Boston Athenæum is uniquely situated to explore this compelling topic through an upcoming exhibition that draws upon the institution’s varied collections, acquired through collective means, from paintings, sculpture, prints, and photographs to architectural drawings, broadsides, and serials. The Athenæum’s archive, rich in primary-level documentation, buttresses this nuanced interdisciplinary investigation that analyzes the process of acquisition through group patronage rather than the genius of the artist, or the act of creation.

Charlotte Emans Moore, Ph.D.
Polly Thayer Starr Fellow in American Art