Philanthropy Today: Murky Waters, Quirky Consequences, and the Joys of Public Art

Amy Henderson
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Philanthropists may fancy themselves the Medici of today’s art world. Demanding or endearing, they control the money that shapes public access to contemporary art and culture. The Sackler family has earned the consequences of outraged headlines, with the Louvre the latest museum to scrub “Sackler” from its walls. Other major museums like the Met, the Guggenheim, and the Tate have stopped accepting Sackler money.

But there have always been donors lacking egregious faults. General Foods owner and socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post left her world-class collections of pre-revolutionary Russian art, French decorative arts, jewelry, and couture to the public upon her death. Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C., is her legacy estate—a bequest given because “I want to share this with the rest of the world.”  (Hillwood website)

Édouard Vuillard, Interior with Red Bed or The Bridal Chamber (Intérieur au lit rouge or La chambre nuptiale), 1893. Oil on board mounted on cradled panel, 12 3/4 x 20 7/8 in., The Phillips Collection, promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant.

The prince of philanthropists today is David M. Rubenstein, founder of the Carlyle Group.  He describes his giving as “Patriotic Philanthropy,” and he has given hundreds of millions of dollars for projects to restore major historic sites like the Washington Monument, Monticello, Mt. Vernon, and most recently the Jefferson Memorial.  He believes that philanthropy is not about rich people writing checks, but as the ancient Greeks intended, about “loving humanity—helping other people.”  If a donor believes such giving will also smooth his or her path to heaven, then so be it. (Rubenstein interview in Washingtonian Magazine, 6/5/19)

Philanthropists who are also art collectors present both a godsend and a challenge to museums today.  Two recent exhibitions in Washington, D.C., this fall reflect the intricate relationship of collectors and museums. The Phillips Gallery, America’s first museum of modern art, has recently opened an exhibition drawn from the collection of long-time supporters Vicki and Roger Sant—“Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life.”

Félix Vallotton, Scene de rue (Street Scene), 1895. The Phillips Collection, promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant.

Planned to showcase a major promised gift from the Sants, the exhibition features over 70 rarely seen paintings and works on paper by late 19th century French artists known as the “Nabi.”  This group—which included Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, and others—were inspired by Paul Gauguin in 1889-90. Rejecting naturalism and embracing abstract color as a means of personal expression, the Nabi experimented with painting, ceramics, stained glass, textiles, and theatrical sets and costumes.

Most interestingly, the Nabi explored printmaking in years when technology had an enormous impact, allowing the advent of 4-color lithography and making each print an “original.”

Pierre Bonnard, Stork and Four Frogs (Le marabout et les quatre grenouilles), 1889. Three-panel screen; distemper on canvas, 62 3/4 x 21 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant.

Exhibition curator Elsa Smithgall argues that “These visionary artists…exploited the expressive power of line and color, forging a new path in modern art that helped fuel the development of abstract art.”  (Phillips press release)  But on its own and in its own time, the Nabi’s lithographic art exemplified the impact technology was making in the late 19th century by facilitating a new methodology of visual culture.

The Sants’ relationship with the Phillips extends over three decades and reflects a superb synergy between collectors and a museum. Their bequest will be the centerpiece of the museum’s 2021 centennial, and Phillips Director and CEO Dr. Dorothy Kosinski calls the Sant gift “nothing short of transformative.”

Marcel Duchamp.Boîte-en-valise (de ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sşlavy). 1935-41. 1963 areproduction in leather valise containing 68 miniature replicas, photographs, and color reproductions of works by Duchamp. Promised gift of bargbara and Aaron Levine to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. Photo: Cathy Carver. Copywright Assoc. Marcel Duchamp/ ADAGP, Paris/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2029.

The Hirshhorn Museum has also opened a collector-based exhibition this Fall—“Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection.” The Levines began collecting Duchamp works in the past twenty years, and their promised gift to the Hirshhorn of 50 major historical artworks includes 35 Duchamp pieces that span the arc of the artist’s career. They have had a lengthy relationship with the Hirshhorn, and thought the museum would be an excellent place to share Duchamp with a broad-ranging audience on the National Mall

Marcel Duchamp, Porte Chapeau (Hat Rack), conceived in 1917/Executed in 1964. Wooden hat rack diam: 10 1/4 x 18 in. edition: 5/8 + 3 Aps. Photo: National Gallery of Canada. © Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2018

The Levines embrace Duchamp’s sense of fun and his character as a prankster, notably his “Readymades” in which he took mass-produced objects of the Machine Age and proclaimed them “art!”  Duchamp’s “Fountain”—a urinal signed “R. Mutt”—is the most famous example, and the Levines’ collection (while lacking a “Fountain”) does have such Readymades as “Hat Rack” and “Comb.” The Levine exhibition also contains such works of Duchamp’s hand craftsmanship as “Box in a Valise,” which is a group of miniature reproductions of about 60 of the artist’s most iconic works. There are also other boxes on display that contain more than 150 facsimiles of Duchamp’s working notes for “The Large Glass.”

Although not as inclusive as the Duchamp collection at the Philadelphia Art Museum, the Levine collection will make the Hirshhorn one of the country’s foremost Duchamp repositories.  The museum will mount a second-stage Duchamp exhibition in 2020, which will showcase “Duchamp’s lasting impact through the lens of the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection.”

By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer

FROM BONNARD TO VUILLARD will be at the Phillips Gallery through January 26, 2020. A catalogue of the same title is published by Rizzoli Electra.

MARCEL DUCHAMP will be at the Hirshhorn Museum through October 2020. A catalogue is available.

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