The Money of Color

Who bankrolled the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe? A handful of rich Texans who’ve mastered the art of giving.

September 1999By Comments

The museum devoted to American modernist Georgia O’Keeffe is in downtown Santa Fe, but from the list of benefactors posted on its plastered adobe walls, you’d think it was smack-dab in the middle of Texas. The roster reads like a who’s who of the state’s philanthropists and philanthropic groups, from retired Neiman Marcus chairman Stanley Marcus and Southwest Airlines founder Rollin King to the foundations named for Fort Worth’s Burnett family and Texas Instruments co-founder Eugene McDermott. Typically, Texas art lovers give to institutions closer to home, such as the Dallas Museum of Art or Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum. But the state’s arts patrons have opened their hearts—and checkbooks—to the two-year-old Georgia O’Keeffe Museum as if it were one of their own. And, in a sense, it is.

“The genesis came from Texas,” says Fort Worth grandee John Marion, who in twenty years as the chairman of the auction house Sotheby’s Incorporated gaveled down paintings worth millions of dollars, including the most expensive painting in history: Vincent van Gogh’s Irises, which sold for $49 million. It was Marion’s wife, Anne Windfohr Marion, a member of one of Texas’ wealthiest families, who decided that an O’Keeffe museum needed to be built with private money—her money. Anne Marion is the great-granddaughter of rancher and oil baron Burk Burnett and the daughter of Anne Burnett Tandy, whose husband, Charles, acquired Radio Shack for his Tandy Corporation. The seed money for the museum came from the Burnett Foundation, which Anne Tandy founded in 1978 and which Anne Marion now heads. The foundation gave almost $10 million to buy the O’Keeffe museum building and much of its permanent collection.

Other well-connected Texans—many of whom live part of the year in Santa Fe—are members of the museum’s board of directors. In fact, more than a third of the fourteen-member board are from Texas: the Marions; King, who is its president; Christopher Sarofim, who is the son of Houston philanthropist extraordinaire Louisa Stude Sarofim and investment whiz Fayez Sarofim and is a principal in Fayez Sarofim and Company; and Stanley Marcus’ wife, Linda. And one of the board’s consultants is Dallas native Juan Hamilton, the sculptor and controversial O’Keeffe friend who inherited much of her estate.

Then there are the donors who helped the museum raise $10 million before it opened. Dallas arts patron Nancy Hamon and gallery owner Gerald Peters, an O’Keeffe expert who knew the artist and whose galleries in Santa Fe, New York, and Dallas have represented her work, each gave more than $10,000, as did the Marions, the Marcuses, King and his wife, Mary Ella, and the Burnett and the McDermott foundations. This summer, more high-powered Texans gave $10,000 as well, including Dallas developer Vincent A. Carrozza, the Rio Grande Fund of Laredo, and foundations named for Dallas philanthropist Mildred Mayer and her husband, Frederick, and Dallas investor George Shutt and his wife, Nancy. In addition, Fort Worth billionaire Lee M. Bass and his wife, Ramona, contributed to an appeal for funds that raised $90,000, as did Deborah Moncrief, the wife of Fort Worth oilman W. A. “Tex” Moncrief. So did lesser-known Texans like Gayle D. Fogelson, the stepson of actress Greer Garson and the son of wildcatter E. E. “Buddy” Fogelson. Since then the donations from Texas have continued to pour in: Next to New Mexicans, more of the museum’s contributors last year came from Texas than any other state.

And that’s without any sort of full-blown fundraising drive. Up until now, in an unusually cooperative arrangement, the O’Keeffe museum has been sharing memberships and piggybacking promotion and publicity with the state-run Museum of New Mexico complex, which includes the Museum of Fine Arts several blocks away—the thinking being that the private and public museums can complement instead of compete with each other. (The O’Keeffe museum is also giving the Museum of New Mexico Foundation a whopping 75 percent of its gate receipts; in return, the foundation will loan the O’Keeffe museum some of the artist’s works it owns.) The arrangement ends next year, however, and at that time the O’Keeffe museum will begin approaching corporations and foundations, as well as individuals, to build an endowment to buy more paintings, plan more programs, and mount exhibitions. This summer the board completed a plan that includes fundraising objectives.

Not surprisingly, while the campaign will be nationwide (since the museum aims to appeal to a national audience), Texas foundations, businesses, and individuals will be key targets. “Texans have played a critical role not only in founding the museum but in supporting it,” says its director, George King, who notes that Texans have from day one consistently ranked first, second, or third in the nation in monthly attendance tallies.

It makes sense that Texans are lining up to visit and have contributed to a museum in Santa Fe. For one thing, residents of the state have long felt a strong connection with the city. George King, a transplanted New Yorker, says that his wife, Sarah, jokingly calls Santa Fe “the Provence of Texas” because so many Texans vacation there regularly or have second homes set against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

For another, Georgia O’Keeffe—the first woman artist of international stature to have a museum in America dedicated to her work—has strong Texas ties. It was the Texas Panhandle, after all, that inspired her to paint abstract landscapes when she taught art in Amarillo and then in Canyon between 1912 and 1918. During that period she also began a series of charcoal drawings that were startlingly personal and thoroughly modern. A friend showed the drawings to avant-garde photographer Alfred Stieglitz, a pioneering champion of modern art who later became her husband. In 1917 Stieglitz gave O’Keeffe her first solo exhibition at his New York gallery. Her groundbreaking early watercolors Light Coming on the Plains and Evening Star and her abstractions of Palo Duro Canyon burst onto the art scene long before she ever painted the New Mexico landscape.

No wonder, then, that before the O’Keeffe museum opened, Texans could see many fine examples of her work within the state’s borders. Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, an early supporter, mounted an O’Keeffe retrospective in 1966. In 1988 the Dallas Museum of Art was one of only four museums nationwide to host the first major exhibition of her work since her death two years before. Both the Amon Carter and the DMA have O’Keeffes in their permanent collections.

Private collectors in Texas, too, bought O’Keeffe’s work before it was universally embraced. Among them was Anne Tandy. “Anne [Marion] inherited an affection for O’Keeffe’s work through her mother,” says Stanley Marcus, who got to know her well because one of his daughters was in her class at Dallas’ exclusive Hockaday School. Marcus himself had also discovered the artist: His aunt Carrie Marcus Neiman, whose husband, Al, co-founded Neiman Marcus with her and her brother Herbert Marcus, Sr., gave him an O’Keeffe for a birthday present. Even though she was better known for her monumental canvases of flowers, Marcus loved her long, narrow oil painting of an antelope skull. “It was the first important painting I owned,” Marcus told me. “But at that time we didn’t know what was going to become important. I just didn’t care for the florals as much as the art market did. I very much liked the skull.” Last year Marcus and his wife sold their second home in Santa Fe, which they had for many years, and auctioned off much of their art collection—but not the O’Keeffe, which hangs in their house in Dallas.

Marcus’ pivotal role in the museum’s creation has often been overshadowed by the national press’s fascination with the Marions. But it was he who, acting at the behest of the New Mexico Foundation for the Arts, on whose board he served, first approached Anne Marion about possibly donating several of her O’Keeffes to Santa Fe’s Museum of Fine Arts. For years the city was painfully lacking in its O’Keeffe holdings, even though the artist lived and worked north of there for almost fifty years—first at Ghost Ranch, then in the village of Abiquiu. After thinking it over, Marion told him that she wasn’t willing to turn over her prized paintings to a public institution. “She said, ‘I’ve decided to do something else. I’m going to establish a private museum, privately funded,’” Marcus recalls. “That really took the wind out of my sails. I said, ‘Anne, that’s wonderful, but do you know what you’re getting into?’ And she said, ‘I have the money, and I’m going to do it.’” Soon after that conversation the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum was incorporated; it opened less than two years later. “I don’t think it ever would have happened [without private money],” Marcus says. Others agree that the Marions accomplished in a short period of time what the city had never been able to do.

Marcus recruited another Texan and part-time Santa Fe resident, Rollin King, to serve on the museum’s development committee. A Dallas businessman who two decades ago persuaded his friend Herb Kelleher to run a low-cost, short-haul airline called Southwest, King owned several O’Keeffes too. He says he’s given a “good amount of money” to the museum, some in the form of a charitable trust. “The way all museums grow is through somebody dying,” he says with a chuckle. “I’ve given, but the bulk of it will go to the museum later. Hopefully, much later.”

A large chunk of the museum’s permanent collection—which has grown in only two years from 80 pieces to 137—has come from the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation in Abiquiu, which was established by representatives of the artist’s estate. The museum took possession of 33 pieces from the foundation’s collection—some donated, some bought by the Burnett Foundation—reportedly valued at more than $5 million, including iconic paintings of the cliffs at Ghost Ranch and bleached bones floating in the desert sky. The O’Keeffe Foundation has also placed the artist’s paintings with major art museums in the U.S., France, and Japan to build an endowment that will one day transfer her house in Abiquiu to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

But the museum’s directors and benefactors know that they have work to do if they want to keep growing and attracting gifts of art. “As the museum earns its reputation, owners of O’Keeffes will begin to have real respect for what it’s doing,” Marcus says. “Owners of valuable works of art don’t give to institutions that don’t provide good air conditioning and have good shows.” And what will become of his own beloved O’Keeffe painting? Marcus is mulling whether to give it away or keep it in the family. “Frankly, I haven’t made a decision on that,” he says—though not, he hastens to add, because he has any concerns about the museum.

Ultimately, John Marion says, the goal is to build a “living, breathing institution, not just a monument to Georgia O’Keeffe.” To achieve it, the museum plans to heighten the artist’s visibility by arranging long-term loans of O’Keeffes that are owned but typically held in storage by major institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Art Institute of Chicago. While part of the O’Keeffe museum’s permanent collection will be on display all the time, it is also staging complementary exhibitions. When I visited in June, “Artists of the Stieglitz Circle” was hanging in one of the museum’s galleries. The exhibition, which ran from April to July, put O’Keeffe’s work in the perspective of friends and colleagues such as Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Stieglitz himself, and photographer Paul Strand.

Through October 17, an exhibition organized by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the Dallas Museum of Art—“Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things”—is on display, bringing together 69 paintings and works on paper and examining O’Keeffe’s depiction of objects. An expanded show on the Stieglitz circle is set for this November, and an O’Keeffe show dedicated to her works on paper is scheduled for next year. George King also wants to put together an exhibition featuring works of living artists that are linked to O’Keeffe’s aesthetic vision. And in the fall of 2000 or the spring of 2001 the museum plans to open the Georgia O’Keeffe Research Center, which will offer competitive residency fellowships to art scholars for the study of American modernism. The center will operate from a historic house near the plaza in Santa Fe and from an adobe at Ghost Ranch that O’Keeffe owned and bequeathed to Hamilton and has since been sold to the Burnett Foundation.

With plans in place and the fundraising drive on the horizon, the museum is “evolving and growing,” George King says. “It’s turning into a real museum.” A museum that Texans are backing with their time, patronage, and money—even if it happens to be in New Mexico.

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