This weekend, the Nasher Sculpture Center celebrates its 10th anniversary with the Nasher XChange, 10 works of public art located all around Dallas. As KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, that’s fitting for Raymond Nasher’s legacy.Ray and his wife Patsy were devoted to bringing art to the public.
- Listen to Nancy Nasher and Sculpture Center director Jeremy Strick today on KERA’s THINK at noon.
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Nancy Nasher and her two sisters grew up living with the sculpture collection their parents, Raymond and Patsy Nasher, created over the years. The couple started it in their own home and garden — and eventually on a nearby property as well. It became something of a secret museum for Dallasites who knew where to drive to visit the Tony Smith and Barbara Hepworth sculptures out on the lawn.
Nancy Nasher says, to live with the collection was to learn what such a landscape filled with art meant to her parents.
“It was all around us,” she says. “It was in the kitchen, it was down the hallway, it was under my bed, it was outside my window. But more importantly, as each piece of art came in, they were so excited about it. And I think they knew that the joy that art gave to them—and they were such believers in education – that they wanted to share that joy with others.”
So when North Texans visit the artworks and garden at the Nasher Sculpture Center, we are experiencing how the Nasher art collection began. Essentially, we are in the Nasher’s house and yard. When they started buying modern sculptures in the late ‘60s — they began in 1967 with a birthday gift of Jean Arp’s Torso with Buds that Patsy bought for Raymond — the Nashers weren’t thinking of building an art museum or even a “collection.” They were just filling their North Dallas home and grounds with what they loved.
But long before Jerry Jones put major art in a football stadium, the Nashers put it in the shopping mall they developed in 1965, NorthPark Center. It’s long since become a cliche for corporate headquarters, condo towers and the like to park an inoffensive, abstract block of something outfront or in a lobby, something officially designated as art, although many would be hard pressed to determine why. Or how it was supposed to elevate the surroundings or anyone in the vicinity.
But at NorthPark, the Nashers put out Warhols and Stellas, Jonathan Borofsky’s Hammering Men and one of Barry Flanagan’s trademark Leaping Hare sculptures. First-rate stuff, works that might well bewilder or intrigue shoppers on their way to Neiman Marcus. And they housed it all in settings designed to set it off: the mall as well-lit gallery, the private lawn as sculpture park. Nancy Nasher says that with NorthPark Center and with their house, her parents came to appreciate how art, sunlight, grass, trees and buildings can influence us, can shape an environment.
“To look at a cotton field in Far North Dallas and say, ‘I want to create a shopping center and put it there’ when there was nothing, it was a turning point,” she says. “They focused on great architecture and natural light and landscaping. And they felt that they had an opportunity to expose millions of people to art at NorthPark.”
Sculpture is fundamentally different to collect than paintings, especially outsized sculptures. Almost anyone can hang five or six paintings on a wall, but a single Tony Smith sculpture can fill a room, dominate a landscape. Just installing a single one takes a huge commitment — not just of money, but of the space, manpower and equipment to move it and maintain it. And when the Nashers started collecting, sculptures weren’t as valued as paintings or even prints (it’s a distinction that goes back centuries). Which is one reason that, at first, they could afford Matisse or Jasper John bronzes, instead of their oil paintings.
Sarah Schroth has written a book about the Nashers as art collectors. She says any number of wealthy arts patrons might want to show off their acquisitions. “But Ray had a sense of civic duty when he bought these things because he felt he should share them,” she says. “He could make a difference.”
Schroth is also the director of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University (left). Many North Texans don’t realize there are actually two Nasher Museums, the sculpture center here and the museum in North Carolina (designed by Rafael Vinoly, cost: $24 million). Raymond Nasher established the one at Duke because he graduated there in economics and, even as a student, had felt a university of Duke’s quality deserved a serious art museum to enrich its community.
But other, deeply personal events influenced the creation of the Sculpture Center in Dallas (where the collection is housed – individual works are loaned to the Duke museum). First, in the ‘80s, art museums started courting the couple to show their collection: the Meadows Museum at SMU, the Dallas Museum of Art, then a tour to the National Gallery in Washington, followed by a trip to Madrid, Florence and Tel Aviv, and another to San Francisco and the Guggenheim in New York.
It dawned on them, says Nancy Nasher, that their collection was something special, something valued by leading museums all over the world: “It was the process of showing their work in many countries and many venues and seeing people’s response to it that inspired them.”
Then Patsy Nasher developed brain cancer. She had survived breast cancer, but the return of cancer lent an urgency and focus to the couple’s collecting. It was Patsy who’d done a lot of the scouting and research. She had a real eye for finding talent, says Schroth. And she was a daring collector — going to Jeff Koons’ first show and promptly buying one of his works, the stainless steel Louis XIV.
Nancy Nasher says her mother’s struggle with cancer began to shape the collection and, ultimately, the center. The couple began collecting in depth, buying Giacomettis, Picassos and Matisses — with an eye toward creating a collection worthy of its own museum, ‘the finest collection of modern sculpture in private hands,’ as it was often called. And after Patsy died in 1988, Raymond Nasher set out to create a suitable, permanent home for it.
“That is why and how the Sculpture Center really was created,” Nancy Nasher says, “as an hommage to honor my mother, to honor the city. “
It’s a home that, in its heightened, Renzo Piano-designed way, recreates the house and gardens Raymond and Patsy had once filled with art – right down to her favorite trees. The home Nancy grew up in.
“I come here, and I feel them,” she says, looking out at the garden from the center’s boardroom. “I know about each piece and the story behind each piece. And I’m just in awe of what the two of them did.”