The Collector

Sinclair Hitchings places a cup of Earl Grey, lightly tanned with cream, back in its saucer on his table at the Four Seasons. “The best thing to collect is the art of your own times, because you can know the artist,” says the longtime keeper of prints (that's his official title) at the Boston Public Library. “These people have a calling, and it's a difficult one, not held in high regard in the United States, which is very business oriented.”

Not that Hitchings doesn't have a head for business. Since he took his position at the BPL in 1961, Hitchings has breathed life into a department that was once nearly moribund. When he retires this month, his department's endowment will have grown from $30,000 to roughly $10 million, while its holdings now include more than 650,000 photos, 135,000 post cards, and 100,000 prints, drawings, and watercolors, including the single largest public collection of works by Boston artists, embracing more than 10,000 pieces.

Collecting art isn't only Hitchings's job. It's his passion, his crusade. “The chance to share an artist's insight — it's a shame so many people are missing this,” he says. “Especially in Boston, where we have so many talented, masterful artists. You can own many things: houses, automobiles, jets. But even most wealthy people are missing out on something that can add insight and resonance to their lives. Artists have deepened my life and given me understanding and sensitivity and perception. I got it by being able to see my surroundings and some of my fellow people through their eyes. It's deepening, tremendously enriching.”

This is a speech Hitchings has made many times and with evangelical fervor in the parlors and private clubs of Brahmins and the nouveau riche, in the galleries along Newbury Street, at lectures in museums, and among his fellow curators. The former Army brat, Dartmouth scholarship student, and Quincy Patriot Ledger reporter has made collecting and patronizing Boston artists his calling for 43 years. In the process, he's befriended such gifted creators as Barbara Swan, Arthur Polonsky, and Bernard Chaet. Some of the jewels from the library's local artists collection appear on the following pages along with Hitchings's observations.

Esteem for Hitchings runs high, even among those who have nothing to sell him. “He's one of the most conspicuous figures in the Boston and Cambridge art scene, famous for his anecdotes, hearty laugh, and good humor,” says Clifford Ackley, curator of prints and drawings and chairman of the prints, drawings, and photographs department at the Museum of Fine Arts. “He's been incredibly important to many artists. Whereas we acquire Boston artists rather selectively, he has acquired their work with depth.”

Yet Hitchings says, “My influence on collecting Boston artists has been zero. On that point I failed miserably. The support system of galleries and journalism has not kept pace with the proliferation of artists in Boston. And the gallery scene is woefully inadequate for the hundreds and hundreds of talented artists here.”

Hitchings hasn't capitulated. “I'm in my early seventies and have room in my life for one more chapter,” he says. Starting in November, he'll begin trying to raise money for a small museum dedicated to contemporary art produced in and around Boston.