Off the Cuff: Why People Give Museums Their Art

Charles Shepard, FWMoA President & CEO

A portrait of President & CEO of FWMoA, Charles Shepard, with a work from the glass collection.
FWMoA President & CEO Charles Shepard. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Recently, I wrote a short piece about why some great, but perhaps under-known works of art, end up fetching lower than anticipated prices at auctions on a regular basis. My premise, you might recall, was that so often the person consigning this wonderful art to the auction house was simply tasked with getting rid of it in the most efficient manner and, perhaps, making a couple of bucks for the estate in the process. That is, of course, not always the case; but, you might be surprised by how often that is the motivating factor that drives somebody to call an auction house. Death, downsizing, and divorce are the leading precipitating events that occasion a sudden accumulation of objects that need to be reckoned with in short order. When my mother passed away two years ago, we were suddenly faced with the question of what to do with her lifetime collection of home improvement magazines. She left very little art – who can afford art while paying for all these subscriptions? Clearly, there was no reason to call an auctioneer. But still we had to deal with this mountain of paper. Thankfully, solving the problem that this collection posed was fairly simple: a weekend of trips to the recycling center. But my point, essentially, is that all of us tend to surround ourselves with stuff – sometimes art, sometimes magazines – that is, eventually, going to have to be disposed of by some means, usually by someone other than ourselves. In the case of art, the solution often involves an auction house.

But not everyone thinks their art belongs in the same category with the rest of their other stuff. For many people, the art that they have collected holds a special place in their lives. It might have been purchased at a special time or with a special person, the imagery might have a particular relevance to their interests, or perhaps the medium of its creation had a special appeal. Whatever the case, the art that they’ve collected has come to have such significance to them that they are likely to take steps to ensure that it ends up in a place where it, and by association, they, will be appreciated. Often, that place is a museum, and the Fort Wayne Museum of Art is no exception.

Just this week, I was sought out by a person such as this: a 96-year-old gentleman, Stanley Asrael, who, with his wife, purchased three large stained-glass windows at an antique store years ago. They displayed these beautiful pieces in their Maryland home and enjoyed them every day. But now, aging and alone, Asrael felt compelled to make arrangements for these exquisite pieces so that when he, too, passes they won’t be shunted off to a yard sale or auction house with his other household objects. These stained-glass windows clearly mean a great deal more to him than the rest of his possessions. They have been daily beacons of beauty and joy to him, and a warm reminder of the day he and his wife discovered them and brought them into their home. In our conversation, he expressed his desire to find a new public home for his treasured windows where they could be appreciated and enjoyed by many people, and he felt sure that the Fort Wayne Museum of Art was just such a place.

One of the works of art in the original donation from Theodore Thieme by a German artist, it shows a woman seated next to a cradle with a baby in it. The baby waves at the viewer, and the woman smiles down at it. The window lets in the light, and plants decorate the windowsill. A bird sits at the end of the cradle.
Theodore Thieme’s original donation of a group of artworks started the FWMoA permanent collection. Hermann Knopf, German, 1870-1928. A Visitor. Oil on canvas, early 20th century. Gift of Theodore F. Thieme, 1922.04. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Another person who felt strongly about the art in her life was the late Sylvia Fendel of Manhattan, who specified in her will that her beloved daughter, Alyson Fendel Breier, would be solely responsible for making sure that her collection of contemporary glass sculptures found a new home in the public realm, preferably in an art museum that would cherish them and use them to both delight and educate people of all ages. Careful research led her daughter to consider the Fort Wayne Museum of Art as one of her possible choices. She reached out to me to learn more about our museum’s vision and values, our collection focus, and our emphasis on art education for all ages. Prior to that call, Alyson had the opportunity to watch a recording of a presentation I had made to the Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass in August, and thus already knew how enthusiastic I was about the role that contemporary glass could play in the future of our Museum. I think she also knew a fair bit about our commitment to education and our dedication to serving the broadest array of audiences. In our first conversation, we talked more in depth about those things and about how well positioned our city and our museum were to serve an ever growing number of people as they travelled to and through Indiana, the “Crossroads of America.” We had many more conversations about these things and about how this grand collection had evolved throughout her mother’s life and what it had meant to her. We spoke, also, of how much a collection such as this would mean to our museum, both now and in the future. Sylvia Fendel’s collection would be the cornerstone of the museum’s glass collection. In the course of these conversations with Alyson, it became increasingly clear to both of us that the Fort Wayne Museum of Art would be the perfect home for her mother’s collection. We would care for it, we would study it, and we would share it with the world. I am tremendously thankful that Alyson agreed to donate this stunning collection to us. And as I share this great story with you, the collection is being carefully wrapped up and packed to begin its journey to Fort Wayne.

My excitement about the gift of Sylvia Fendel’s glass collection led me to include this news in a high-spirited Zoom presentation I made to a regional group of glass collectors in Arizona. The talk went well and ultimately led to yet another donation. Tanya Sands, a collector who frequently participates in Zoom presentations by glass artists and collectors, was so moved by the story of the gift of the Fendel Collection that she called me the morning after my talk to offer to give us a glass piece by artist Dominick Labino who, along with Harvey Littleton, pioneered the creation of studio glass. Tanya explained that in 1963 her father got this piece directly from Labino in Toledo, Ohio where the artist’s day job was a glass researcher and scientist for Johns-Manville. In 1962 and 1963, Labino and Littleton partnered to offer glass blowing workshops to students, one of whom was Dale Chihuly, who, as we all know, became the most celebrated artist working in glass in the world. When Tanya heard about Sylvia Fendel’s collection coming to the museum, she was inspired to ask us to be the home of this very rare Labino vase that her father had passed down to her. She had been taking care of this work of art that had meant so much to her father and finally had found a new home for it where it would be cared for forever.

The museum is extremely thankful for donations like these, and we recognize that we are privileged to be the institution that many people have chosen to hold and showcase their finest works of art. Collectors have been generous to the Fort Wayne Museum of Art since we opened in 1921 right up to the present day. I think it’s important to note that since beginning to build our contemporary glass collection, an increasing number of the donations of art that we receive come from collectors whose relationship to Fort Wayne began through a connection to the Museum. That is terrific for our community because it greatly expands the quality and diversity of our museum’s collection. It is also a tremendous compliment to the Museum to be recognized by members of the art collecting community as an institution that is worthy of receiving treasures from their private collections. My sincere thanks to the many art collectors who have generously donated art from their family’s collections. I encourage everyone in the community to visit the Museum in the coming months to see some of these new glorious works of art.

Want to see more works that were donated to FWMoA, including the Fendel glass collection? This year, we’re showing off our oldest, and newest, purchases in A Century of Making Meaning, now open and rotating throughout the year!

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