Historical Highlight: Swashbuckling Collector Vincent Melzac

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

Vincent Melzac was described as swashbuckling, flamboyant, and larger than life and was praised by prominent art critic Clement Greenberg as, “the only collector I know with guts”.

Vicent Melzac (1914-1989), Gabe DeLobbe photography.

Here at FWMoA, we’ve had our fair share of interesting characters in the long years since our early days as an art school, but few as colorful and enigmatic as Vincent Melzac –a risk-taking art collector, catfish farmer, racehorse breeder, and beauty school magnate. Mr. Melzac was partly responsible for the existence of our present facility, and for donating some of our most treasured modern works to the collection. His notoriety in the American art world was punctuated by his involvement in a bloody dust-up at a Corcoran gala opening in 1972 that resulted in his termination as the Corcoran’s CEO.  His mysteriously close ties to the CIA are still fodder for conspiracy theorists; but, he was brought to Fort Wayne innocuously enough in the late 1940s by his employer, a prominent local department store.

Melzac lived only briefly in Fort Wayne, but in his short time here had a lasting impact on our collection and our facility. He came to the city as a member of the management team of Wolf & Dessaur that once resided in the building we now call Citizens Square – our present city hall.  “W & D” encouraged its employees’ engagement in civic and cultural activities, so Mr. Melzac, being an avid art lover, became a supporter of the museum and was briefly a member of the board of trustees.  He even wrote an arts column for The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Not a professional artist himself, he was introduced to sketching as an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio when a classmate encouraged young Vincent to attend a local art class with him. This introduction to the process, along with the art and his personal connection with an accomplished artist – William Sommer—launched his passion for collecting art.

“I must admit that most of my satisfaction as a collector has come not from the contemplation of beautiful objects or from seeing my beliefs proved correct, but from the contact I have had with the artists themselves.”

Melzac left our city in 1950 for the East Coast where he rotated between Washington, D.C. and New York, cultivating his art network in both cities. In Washington, D.C. his art interests led him to The American University where he became acquainted through art department head, William Calfee, with critic Clement Greenberg, fellow Polish immigrant and painter Jack Tworkov, and young painter Kenneth Noland. Calfee was actively promoting the post-war New York art scene and urged Melzac to travel to New York with him where Melzac was introduced to Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and the other regulars of the Cedar Tavern and The Club. Through these artists he met Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Alan Fenton, Larry Rivers, and Norman Bluhm.  While he was cultivating the New Yorkers, he was also building connections within the smaller world of Washington, D.C. artists. Through Noland, Greenberg, Morris Louis, and the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts the beginnings of the Washington Color School were emerging. Noland and Louis would be followed by Gene Davis, Paul Reed, Howard Mehring, Thomas Downing, and later Alma Thomas and Sam Gilliam. Melzac enthusiastically collected their work and developed relationships with all of them but Louis, who died from lung cancer in 1962. Not only did Melzac collect their works, but he also promoted, loaned, or donated their work to major national museums.  Seminal exhibits drawn from his collection impacted the rise of contemporary American art of the era.

“Looking back over the career of Vincent Melzac, it is plain to see that his devotion to art was a personal cause and not a commercial venture.  He had a sincere belief in the avant-garde, in the work of his own time and in the freedom of expression demanded by artists. He was also prepared to stake his belief in the new by the purchase and promotion of his art. There were very few like him.”– Ben Summerford, Professor Emeritus, The American University, Washington D.C., Color and Light

– Ben Summerford, Professor Emeritus, The American University, Washington D.C., Color and Light Selections From the Vincent Melzac Collection, Sunrise Museum, Charleston, West Virginia, 1995

Within a decade, Melzac had collected some 700 paintings from these up and coming artists, though his collecting habit was not always supported by his income.  He once had to sell a car to buy a coveted painting, and often sold off works to add others to his growing collection. Through his artist alignments grew his friendships with many who became giants of American modern art.  Even the recalcitrant Clyfford Still spent a long afternoon with Melzac, who had dropped in at his studio hoping for a brief meeting.  Melzac’s gregarious nature, persuasive negotiating style, and genuine interest in the artists’ lives, ideas, and work added to his own deep connections to the work he collected and to the lasting relationships with these artists.

“I have always felt a great deal of pleasure in sharing the works of art that I have discovered and enjoyed. Beyond the joy that the works themselves offer is the knowledge that many of the people who attend this exhibition [The Vincent Melzac Collection, Norton Gallery, 1974] will be coming in contact with great contemporary art for the first time in their lives, and that many of them will be profoundly affected by it.”

– Vincent Melzac, The Vincent Melzac Collection, Norton Gallery and School of Art, Palm Beach, Florida, 1974

Much was written about Vincent Melzac’s transformational collecting, his dramatic encounters, and mysterious connections – the collection of Washington Color School paintings he sold to the CIA, for example; but, at FWMoA we remember him for the Weatherhead Report, the needs assessment study he conducted in 1976,that set in motion the realization of our modern facility and for his gift of a few outstanding paintings, including the 1973 Wind Sparkling Dew and Green Grass by Alma Thomas. For several years, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art was delighted to hold a loan of over a dozen of Mr. Melzac’s Washington Color School paintings, but they were eventually returned to his family.

Alma Thomas, African American, 1891-1978. Wind Sparkling Dew and Green Grass. Acrylic on canvas, 1973. Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1976.04. Photography by FWMoA.

“A charge has been made to quest after our goal with dispatch. The result must be a museum which is more than a depository of art objects, it must be a unique statement of our cultural aspirations at a given time and at a given place. There ought to be a boldness and assuredness in the announcement of such noble intention. In a sense, the offerings of a new museum would make the arts in the community enjoy a sense of completeness.”

– Vincent Melzac, Fort Wayne Museum of Art Weatherhead Study, 1977

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