A Mid-Westerner in the Middle East: Abby Weed Grey’s Art Collections of the 1960s

By Sarah-Neel Smith
Submitted to Session P4900 (The Islamic and the Modern in the Twentieth Century Visual Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
Art/Art Hist
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
“Question: how does a traveller from the Middle West presume to make a collection of contemporary art from a foreign country?” So queried Abby Weed Grey, a wealthy Minnesotan art collector, in 1966, during a series of trips through Iran, India, Turkey, Japan, and Pakistan. She returned several times in the following decade, amassing a collection of some 400 contemporary works of art.

Grey was a devout Christian who wrote frequently in her diaries about her own personal devotional practices. As she put it in her journal, “perhaps there is only one great (poetic) response to Life: I am the beloved of God. Every movement, then, issuing, wholly holy.” It is clear that part of what drew her to travel across the Middle East and Asia was her belief that the artists of those countries shared her commitment to their personal religious beliefs.

Yet Grey also had political goals for the paintings, sculptures, and works on paper she acquired. In her diaries, she identified herself as someone “publicly charged” and “a mediator between two cultures” in “a Sputnik World.” This goal led her to collaborate with arts institutions like the United States Information Service (USIS), the American Federation of Arts, and MoMA, with whom she organized traveling exhibitions in the US and abroad.

How might we understand the combined imperatives—both religious and political—that drove Grey’s collecting practices in the 1960s and 70s? By placing Grey’s travel diaries in dialogue with writings and artworks by the artists with whom she met during her travels, this paper examines how “religion” and “modernity” served as evaluative categories that enabled the purchase, collection, and circulation of art objects in an international sphere.