Glasses clinked and champagne flowed in downtown Dallas to celebrate the big win over New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. But this time the victory was in art, not football—and Dallas’ most valuable player wasn’t Troy Aikman or Emmitt Smith, but multimillionaire banker and developer Raymond D. Nasher. After years of being courted by world-famous museums, Nasher announced in April that Dallas would get part of the more-than-three-hundred-piece sculpture collection he and his late wife, Patsy, had amassed over more than thirty years. Even better, he would build a two-acre sculpture garden in the downtown arts district—between the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) and the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center—where works in bronze, steel, aluminum, and stone by masters such as Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Joan Miró, Henry Moore, and Auguste Rodin would be on public display. And Nasher would also set up an institute for the study of sculpture with the ambitious goal of turning Dallas into the international center of modern sculpture.
Museums worldwide had salivated at the possibility of someday acquiring part or all of the Nasher collection, which spans more than one hundred years with a depth and quality that rival holdings at some of the world’s best museums—and thus is regarded by many critics as the world’s finest and most important assemblage of modern and contemporary sculpture in private hands. The DMA had held ongoing talks with Nasher since the mid-seventies, but it had stiff competition. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Tate Gallery in London wooed Nasher too, with grandly staged exhibitions, private lunches and lavish dinners, slick catalogs, and designs for their own sculpture gardens. Then, early this year, Dallas dangled its biggest carrot ever: City hall and the DMA pledged to raise $15.6 million to build a Nasher Sculpture Garden and give the collection permanent residence at the museum in exchange for the gift or the long-term loan of the entire collection. It seemed like an offer too good to refuse.
But Nasher did refuse. The 75-year-old wasn’t interested in giving his prized collection away, not even to his adopted hometown. And creating a sculpture garden with other people’s money meant there would be too many strings attached. He wanted more control and flexibility. So he announced he would spend about twice what the city had offered—$32 million of his own money—to build the garden himself, along with a facility for public programs, a cafe, and a sculpture institute. “We thought about various approaches,” Nasher told me, “but in the end, true philanthropy is not a bad idea if you can do it.”
As philanthropic impulses go, however, this one was hardly conventional. Other sculpture gardens, such as the one at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., are often part of a big museum, and other private collections, such as the Menil Collection in Houston, are set up in their own facilities that are open to the public and supported and operated by a private foundation and endowments. Yet while Dallas will get to add the Nasher sculpture garden to its cultural treasures and tie it to its urban museum, the city and the DMA won’t own it; the recently established Nasher Foundation—headed by Nasher—will. The garden will be open to the public for free and will be physically and philosophically linked to the DMA, which will collaborate on exhibitions, public programs, and promotion, and even exhibit pieces from its own permanent collection there, but beyond that it will be privately controlled. The foundation will purchase the two acres of land for the garden, hire an architect and a landscape architect to design it, and commit an estimated $600,000 a year to operate and maintain it. Nasher and the foundation will display twenty to thirty pieces through the garden at a time, loan pieces not on display to other museums or exhibit them at Nasher’s Preston Hollow estate, and buy new works at will (for instance, Nasher has already bought several new sculptures this year, including a bronze study of a foot by Henri Matisse).
The beauty of such an arrangement, players on both sides say, is that everyone wins. The DMA won’t enjoy the prestige of adding the sculpture to its permanent collection and rounding out its holdings, but it certainly gets something valuable. “What Ray has done is provide us a collection that we could not have afforded to buy, on a whole block of real estate in downtown on which we could not have afforded to build, supported by an operational budget we would have been hard-pressed to produce,” says DMA director Jay Gates. Nasher, meanwhile, gets control. No museum governed by a board, trustees, and committees could give a donor the kind of independence that he sought. Says Harry Parker III, a longtime friend of Nasher’s and former DMA director who now heads the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: “Ray seems to have had his cake and eaten it too.”
PULLING TOGETHER COMPLEX DEALS IS something Nasher has been doing all his life. He’s skilled not only in business—he developed Dallas’ NorthPark shopping center, among other chic properties—but also at negotiating the delicate paths of diplomacy. Over the years Democratic and Republican presidents alike have tapped Nasher, a Democrat, for government posts. In the Johnson administration, he was a delegate to the United Nations and served on White House conferences or commissions on urban housing, urban development, and international cooperation. Two decades later George Bush appointed Nasher to serve on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Arts diplomacy has been a particularly active area of interest for Nasher, who held the lofty title of ambassador of cultural affairs for the City of Dallas from 1988 to 1992. Because he freely loans out his personal collection—he doesn’t believe in keeping art in storage—he has gotten chummy