An Impressionist Legacy
Monet to Moore
The Millennium Gift of Sara Lee Corporation
Alfred Sisley France 1839–1899 Un sentier aux Sablons [ A path at Les Sablons] 1883 oil on canvas 46.0 x 55.0 cm Promised Gift of the Sara Lee Corporation, Chicago to the National Gallery of Australia through the American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia (AFANG).
Just after World War II, in 1945, Nathan Cummings, a successful but by no means wealthy Canadian-born American businessman, was walking down a street in Paris. The city looked a little grim, compared to its sleek and prosperous image today, but it had survived the war, and Cummings must have felt wonderfully open that afternoon because he stopped to look at a small, intensely green landscape in a gallery window. He walked in, asked about the work, asked the price, and bought it. He had purchased Bountiful harvest 1893, by Camille Pissarro, a painter of whom he had never heard, Cummings later confessed. And this purchase started a collecting adventure — one might almost say a collecting addiction — that resulted in the exhibition at the National Gallery 0f Australia this winter. The Nathan Cummings Collection was born in 1945 and, by 1970, was so large and important that it was exhibited and published by the National Gallery, Washington DC, the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Louvre.
In 1980, almost exactly 35 years after Cummings’s Paris purchase, a young man named John Bryan, the CEO of the corporation founded by Nathan Cummings, Sara Lee Corporation, paid a visit to the retired Mr Cummings in his New York apartment. Bryan had heard that Cummings was beginning to sell certain of his great works and he wanted to inquire whether the corporation might be allowed to purchase a select group of works from the Cummings Collection for the new executive offices in downtown Chicago. Neither man had very grandiose ideas - about this meeting. John Bryan wanted to have works of art in the offices that were at once high quality and appropriate, and what more appropriate source was there than the large and important private collection of a man who had made all his money from the corporation. And Nathan Cummings was probably happy that, in a simple business transaction, he could sell a group of works to the company he had founded. The meeting was successful and John Bryan came away with a commitment from Mr Cummings to sell works to the company (at estate values) for use in the decoration of the corporate offices. The Sara Lee Collection was born. Now, almost exactly 55 years after Nathan Cummings’ stroll down the street in Paris, and 20 years after John Bryan's providential trip to New York, the international public is celebrating The Millennium Gift of Sara Lee Corporation.
This, the largest corporate gift to the arts in American history, is also the only major gift to international arts institutions by an American-based global company. In all, 52 works — one for each week of the year — are being given without restriction to 40 art museums, 25 in the United States of America, and 15 scattered through North America, Europe, the Middle Ease, Asia and Australia. We can safely say that, if anyone had suggested that this would happen to Nathan Cummings in 1945, or to John Bryan in 1980, either man would have responded with an amused chuckle.
But it HAS happened. How and why? To begin with, the curly purchases of the corporation in 1980 were gradually amended so that the initial 18 works eventually became a collection of 52 works. Secondly, the increase in monetary value of most of the works between their purchase and their gift has been so great that, just to keep the collection in the executive offices, had become an onerous responsibility for a company whose major function is to make money for its shareholders! Yet, this very increase in monetary value provided the corporation with a tax incentive to give at least part of the collection away. This, together with the negative publicity that would come from a high-profile sale, gave the corporation the opportunity to be truly creative in their distribution of the collection.
Three alternatives were considered: sale, part gift/part sale, and gift of the collection. Each was thoroughly explored during a meeting of the board, near the end of which the vote was unanimous to give the collection away. In the minds of the men and women on the board, it would benefit both the world and the corporation more if the collection were given to museums in areas in which the company has business ties than if it were sold. And so the process began. ‘What was the process? First, the directors chose to recognise that three museums — the National Gallery, Washington DC, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Art Institute 0f Chicago — had exhibited the Cummings Collection in his lifetime. In recognition of this, each was given ‘first pick’ of a single work (fortunately, they didn’t choose the same one!). Then, the Art Institute of Chicago was asked to choose an additional 11 works so as to keep a core of the collection in the city in which the company has been headquartered since the 1940s. This gift was announced at the Art Institute of Chicago at a press conference attended by the First Lady, Hillary Clinton.
Before making the announcement, we worked to select a group of major American museums in regions of the country in which Sara Lee Corporation had factories, offices, or a major corporate customer. Each of these institutions was presented with a choice of three or four works of art selected by me, the Curator of the Collection, to complement their permanent collection. In this way, each museum itself was involved in the gift, not merely the passive recipient of paternal corporate generosity. This phase completed, all of us involved with the gift ‘took stock’ and decided that a global corporation had global responsibilities. We also felt that the initial American gift, made in connection with the Millennium Gift to America program of the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, had overlooked certain institutions, many of whom had called or written requesting that they be added to the program. After a careful examination of these requests, in keeping with the principle that gifts should always be made in areas with a strong corporate base, the final group of museums was approached, again (except in the last three cases) with a choice among two or three works of art from the Sara Lee Collection. The entire program of gifts was completed by 15 March 1999, just in time for the announcement of the international tour of the collection in 1999—2000. Each museum will receive its gift at the close of the exhibition tour.
Yet, what is important about the Millennium Gift of Sara Lee Corporation cannot be summarised with a story or two about Nathan Cummings and John Bryan, nor is it a complete story told with a brief summary of the gift itself Rather, itis the story of 52 individual works of art and of their new permanent homes in 40 museums throughout the world. Fortunately, the collection itself is of very high quality. Each among the 52 works is of ‘museum quality’, meaning that there was no necessity to persuade reluctant directors to accept a gift. Secondly, the works span a period in European (mostly Parisian) painting and sculpture from 1870—1970, in which artistic production was at a very high level. The earliest painting is an 1872 portrait by Claude Monet of his first son, Jean, riding a mechanical horse. With its prominent signature and date and its art historical resonance with works by Goya and Velasquez, it has undeniable iconic power. This was immediately recognised by Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum, which, in addition to works by Goya and Velasquez, owns a portrait of the entire Monet family in the same country garden painted two years later by the artist’s friend, Edouard Monet. Where better for the Monet to be? And the latest work in the collection, Henry Moore’s Moon head of 1964, was snapped up by the newly created Singapore Art Museum, where it will hr the first work by Moore in what will eventually be the finest collection of modern art in Southeast Asia. Appropriately enough, Moore also created an immense reclining figure for a public plaza less than half a mile from the museum. And, between the Monet and the Moore, were 50 works of art, each of which had to be placed in a perfect home — a situation rather more like human adoption than a simple gift. As a long-time museum professional, the process was fascinating for me. At first, I imagined that each director or curator would choose the same work that I myself would have chosen from the group selected for their particular museum. I confess to having been ‘correct’ a little more than half the time, but of being completely wrong in others. In two casts, none of the choices was quite right, so we went back into other 'available' works in the collection to make a perfect fit. And, in each case, the results matched everyone’s desires.
In certain cases, the works selected were the first in the institution by that artist. In others, the selection was made to strengthen existing holdings. In still others, a work was selected because it represented a style, school or period in the history of modern European art not represented in the permanent collection of the institution. Some examples might do: the Museum of Fine Arts Houston immediately chose an Edgar Degas Russian dancer because they already own a highly finished Russian dancer pastel in which the same figure was used by Degas. The National Gallery in London chose the more finished of the two Sara Lee Russian dancers by Degas to add a major late pastel to their collection of more than a dozen works by the artist. The Dallas Museum those a superb painting by Jean Metzinger to complement three recently acquired Cubist works by Braque, Picasso and Gris.
What of the National Gallery of Australia? For Brian Kennedy and his staff, the choice was not difficult. Whereas the permanent collection is rich in 20th-century European and American painting, there are only two works by Claude Monet to represent the achievement of Impressionism. What better than to add a classic ‘Impression’ (rapidly painted easel painting) of a suburban landscape made when the movement was at its height, by Alfred Sisley, an Englishman who spent his entire life in France. Anyone can immediately recognise the logic of this choice and can see precisely why the smaller and fresher of the two Sisleys (the second work, which is going to the Los Angeles County Museum, was painted largely in the studio) was a MUCH better choice for Canberra. A path at Les Sablons is a TRUE Impression and can represent that most hallowed modern movement perfectly.
We at Sara Lee are pleased that we will be able to introduce in Australia the new book about the collection, lavishly illustrated and published by Yale University Press. We want the book to serve as a permanent record of the collection and its gift, and we want it to be as beautiful a keepsake as possible. Once the exhibition has closed at the Art Institute of Chicago in the summer of 2000, these works of art will be dispersed to their new permanent homes as The Millennium Gift of Sara Lee Corporation. Sisley’s A path at Les Sablons will finally arrive in its new Australian home.
Professor of Aesthetic Studies, the University of Texas at dalla, Curator of the Sara Lee Corporation Collection