Two pensive women share a mysterious, intense moment in Raphael Soyer's 1980 Annunciation. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)
NPR - One Collector's Plan To Save Realistic Art Was Anything But Abstract
Plenty of collectors want to donate artworks to museums, but the museums don't always welcome them with open arms. "We say 'no thanks' 19 times out of 20," says Betsy Broun, director at the American Art Museum. Sometimes the works aren't museum-quality, other times they don't fit with the museums' philosophy.
But in 1986, representatives from the Sara Roby Foundation called the Smithsonian with an offer it couldn't refuse: paintings by Edward Hopper, Raphael Soyer, Reginald Marsh and many more. They were all collected by Roby, who, in the early 1950s, took on a mission: to save Realistic art from the maws of Abstract Expressionism. The results of her dedication are on display at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum.
Cape Cod Morning is a classic Hopper from 1950. A woman peers out the window, bathed in sunlight, but framed in darkness. Black shutters frame the window and a black-green forest sits behind the house.
"She's hemmed in — this woman is hemmed in by these sentinel-like dark shutters. Almost as if she's a target," Broun says. There's no way out of this Hopper house. "No steps, no door. ... Hopper is famous for putting fences and barricades up in front of his homes and these are basically homes with no entrance, no exit."
Roby, an amateur painter herself, collected works of all kinds from known and unknown mid-century American painters — Ben Shahn, Saul Steinberg, Mark Tobey, Louise Nevelson.
Roby was very generous, says American Art Museum chief curator Virginia Mecklenburg. Her father made a lot of money in cement in the 1920s and '30s — when all those skyscrapers were going up in Manhattan. In the early '50s, with that money and guidance from her art teacher Reginald Marsh (an Ashcan School follower who painted seedy New York scenes in the '20s and '30s) plus other advisors, Roby created a foundation to help American art and artists of her day.
"She wanted to do something that counted," Mecklenburg says.
Marsh gave a dinner party for her in New York, and invited art scene movers and shakers — painters, dealers, museum officials. He seated Roby next to Lloyd Goodrich, then deputy director of the Whitney Museum. Roby asked his advice — how could her foundation best serve artists and the public.
Legend has it he said: "Well, hell, Sara. If you want to help artists, buy their paintings."
And so she did: almost 200 artworks, by more than 100 artists — a major collection, plus a traveling program to take contemporary American art around the country.
Article with full transcript of interview found here.
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