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Wilhelm Reinhold Valentiner papers, 1853-1977

Biographical Note

Art historian and museum director Wilhelm Reinhold Valentiner (1880-1958) lived in New York City, N.Y., Detroit, Michigan, and Raleigh, North Carolina and was known for his leadership and collection development during his tenure at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Valentiner was born in Karlsruhe, Germany to Karl Wilhelm Valentiner, a professor of astronomy at Heidelberg University, and his wife, Anna Lepsius Valentiner. The youngest of four children, Valentiner attended the University of Leipzig and continued studies in art history at the University of Heidelberg, where he received his doctorate in 1905 under the mentorship of Henry Thode. His relationship with Thode and with fellow students Edwin Redslob and Hermann Voss would eventually lead to lifelong friendships with a network of European scholars and historians, including Wilhelm von Bode and Cornelius Hofstede de Groot.
Upon von Bode's recommendation to J.P. Morgan, then President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Valentiner joined the staff of the Metropolitan in 1908 as the curator for Decorative Arts. In 1913, he founded the journal Art in America, where he would remain as editor until 1931. At the onset of World War I, Valentiner returned to Germany to enlist and served until the war's end, at which point he spent a brief period working at the Kaiser Friedrich Museum and participated in the Arbeitsrat für Kunst, a new group that questioned the traditional relationship between artists and established art institutions. Though shortlived, his participation as a chairmen for the Working Council for the Arts introduced him to leading German artists and architects, including Walter Gropius, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Käthe Kollwitz, and Lyonel Feininger. At this time, he also met his future wife, Cecelia Odefay, who he married in 1919.
In 1921, Valentiner returned to the U.S. and was asked to serve as a collecting advisor to the Detroit Institute of Arts. In 1924, he was appointed the Institute's director, a position he held until his retirement in 1944. During his tenure, he oversaw the opening of a new wing, the first acquisition of pre-Columbian and African art, the strengthening of Chinese and Islamic art collections, significant acquisitions of European Modernists, and the development of the museum's education and conservation divisions.
In 1937, Valentiner founded the Art Quarterly journal for the College Art Association, which he edited until 1949. After his retirement from the Institute, Valentiner was called from retirement to serve as director for the Los Angeles County Museum and the Getty Museum in California, and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Valentiner died from complications of pneumonia in 1958.