Stephen Scher ('56; PhD '66) on Art, Authorship, and His Upcoming Exhibit at The Frick


"New York is where I want to be...

There’s so much to do that you never end up doing it all."

Stephen Scher (TD ‘56; PhD ‘66) is an art historian, collector, and published author. We asked him to tell us about his multi-faceted career, and in particular, his special exhibit opening at The Frick this spring: The Pursuit of Immortality: Masterpieces from the Scher Collection of Portrait Medals.

What projects are you working on now, and how did they come to be?

Several years ago, I was chairing the Art History department at Brown, where I had been for 12 years, when I got a call that my father had died. I had a choice to make: stay where I was, or take over the family-owned chemical manufacturing business. It was a difficult decision, but I took over the company, which I ran for 30 years. Along the way, I continued with Art History, building one of the largest collections of commemorative medals in the world. I am currently working on an exhibit of those medals for The Frick, which opens May 8, and I will be giving a lecture on May 10. The exhibition runs until September 10, and we will be publishing a catalogue of the entire collection -- nearly 900 pieces!

Were you involved in the arts/literary scene at Yale?

I studied piano growing up, which I continued at Yale. I also played drums in a band on campus. We did gigs for dances, and had jam sessions that were terrific. Everything at Yale -- the museums, the Broadway shows that played the Shubert before they hit the scene in New York -- it was all great. As it is now!

The publishing industry can be brutal. What were your challenges getting your work published?

Anything I’ve written has been nonfiction and art-history based, such as exhibition catalogues or collections of essays, or articles. I think most people find writing to be difficult: organizing, gathering, making sure the writing is tight and on a subject that will interest people. Publications intended for specialists to read have a lot of footnotes and you’re always worried you’re making mistakes. Writing for the public is more fun, transmitting your enthusiasm to a general audience.

The writing itself is always difficult, having to sit down at your desk and tackle something when you’d rather be doing almost anything else. Then you hope that you have a really tough editor, because we always write a little bit more than we should.

If you could meet one artist, alive or dead, who would it be?

If I say one, I’ll think of six more right away! But a name that would come to mind would be Rembrandt.

Does NYC affect your work?

I was born here. I’m a big-city person. Of all the “world cities,” New York, I think, is the richest. There’s just so much I do here, that I can’t think of being anyplace else. I can think of visiting other places and enjoying them, but New York is where I want to be because it’s so stimulating. There’s so much to do that you never end up doing it all.

What is your best advice for recent grads?

Coming into this world today, I think you have to have a really strong stomach, powerful beliefs, and a lot of optimism. Choose something to do that you really are passionate about. Without that, your life is not fulfilled. Satisfying yourself will affect everybody around you: friends, companions, a significant other -- if you’re not happy, you can’t make other people happy. It may sound selfish but it really isn’t. And you may not know what it is right away. It may take time to find that out.

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