More than 100 works of art from some of the state’s top private collections are on display at the Kimbell Art Museum. KERA’s Stephen Becker reports on how the show came together and what it says about the collectors:
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Nearly two years ago, Kimbell curator C.D. Dickerson put on his Indiana Jones hat and headed out across Texas searching for treasure.
But instead of the lost ark, he was looking for hidden art.
Sometimes it was easy to spot, like when he saw an Edvard Munch hanging in the entry way of a Highland Park home. And then there were times like when he found an exceptional Frederic Leighton painting near the back door.
Dickerson: “It was hanging above the dog bed with chew toys all below it. I don’t think the collectors quite realized what they had. I think they thought we were going to be taking a lot of different pictures – the ones over the fireplace and what not.”
Those trips ultimately produced From the Private Collections of Texas, a wide-ranging exhibition of European art that combines works held by other state museums with pieces on display in people’s homes. Dickerson currated the show with former Dallas Museum of Art Director Richard Brettell.
The show is both a fascinating survey of art in Texas and an insightful look into the people behind those collections.
Many early 20th Century collectors fell more into the Montie Ritchie mold. Ritchie was an aristocratic Brit who moved to Palo Duro Canyon to run a ranch in 1935. His aim was to fill his house with reminders of his European upbringing.
And it wouldn’t be Texas without fun characters like Margaret Batt Tobin. The San Antonio arts patron, who died in 1989, once reportedly quipped that she bought one of Monet’s waterlilies to cover a crack in her wall.
Today’s collectors aren’t necessarily looking to bring a piece of cultured Europe back to Texas. They can hop a jet to the continent any time they want to look at art or even buy it.
Instead, current art buyers often pick a specific area that interests them and focus their collections around it. That’s the approach the Barrett family of Dallas took in assembling the most important collection of Swiss art outside of Switzerland. Several of those paintings are included at the Kimbell.
Richard Drake is a Houston collector whose interest is primarily in 18th Century portraiture. Among the paintings he loaned to the Kimbell are a portrait of Col. John Bullock and his dog by the British painter Thomas Gainsborough and a portrait of King George III’s brother by Italian painter Pompeo Batoni.
And while it’s obvious that the museum benefits by hosting his paintings, Drake says he had personal reasons to participate.
Drake: “To allow anyone that goes … to view the art that I love so much. If that makes them happy, then that’s great for me, also. Also, it doesn’t hurt to have your work exhibited at a museum for the provenance on it.”
Robert Edsel is a Dallas collector and art historian who loaned six works to the Kimbell, including an important landscape by Flemish artist Paul Bril. He takes the private collector’s duty to museums a step further.
Edsel: “One of the opportunities and obligations you have as a private collector is when requests such as this, arrive, it’s part of your obligation to support a great museum like the Kimbell and make works of art available for people to see things that they otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to see.”
But Edsel also admits that the benefits can be mutual. He equates having part of his collection on display in a museum like the Kimbell with receiving the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” And he says that sharing his art can be eye-opening.
Edsel: “When you have other experts’ eyes, trained eyes, sometimes untrained eyes, looking at your works of art, inevitably, you are going to hear comments which are going to be enlightening.”
The Kimbell show will be up through March 21. After that, the art will again be scattered across the state.
Dickerson, the Kimbell curator, says that as far-reaching as the current show may be, there’s still plenty of art that remains hidden in Texas.
Dickerson: “I’m sure there are many stones left unturned out there in the state. But the next generation can do this exhibition again and discover these treasures that are out there.”