Raymond Nasher

He wanted to give away his massive sculpture collection without really giving it away, so he cut a sweet deal with the city of dallas—and elevated the politics of philanthropy to a high art.

December 1997By Comments

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 with the nation’s museum directors; in return, he has been named to the Trustees’ Council of the National Gallery, the National Council of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the International Council of the Tate Gallery, and the Guggenheim’s board.

Nasher’s private office across from NorthPark, normally filled with sculpture, looked uncharacteristically empty when I visited him in June. The Guggenheim had just finished a major exhibition of part of his collection, so he had only a few pieces on display, including a Minimalist ceramic wall sculpture by the late Donald Judd of Marfa. The show drew more than 300,000 people and mostly rave reviews (though a few critics complained that the collection is “safe,” “not novel,” and has historical gaps). Now the Guggenheim’s ballyhooed new museum in Bilbao, Spain, is anxious to show the entire Nasher collection next spring. He isn’t sure he wants the pieces on tour again so soon—he clearly misses them while they’re away, although he’s glad to have the exposure. “Sculpture has been secondary to painting throughout the last century or so,” said Nasher, who, as a child growing up in Boston and New York, studied music and visited art museums at the urging of his parents. “But at this stage in the game, I’m totally convinced that it’s as exciting as painting, if not more exciting. It’s three-dimensional, and you see the light, shade, shadows, the different forms. Sculpture is something you can really almost make a part of yourself as you move around it.”

That realization drove Nasher and his wife, Patsy, to collect sculpture, although they didn’t view themselves as serious collectors until the eighties. After moving from Boston to Dallas in 1950, they began vacationing in Mexico and visiting archaeological digs. Good pieces of pre-Columbian sculpture could be had for $10 to $25, and the Nashers amassed a large collection. They focused mainly on paintings, though, until the early sixties, when Patsy gave Ray a major piece of sculpture as a birthday present: Jean Arp’s abstract Torso With Buds, which Nasher keeps in the entryway at his home. Prices were low when the Nashers began collecting sculpture because it was less popular than other forms of art. They didn’t even begin to acquire works in the million-dollar range until they purchased a Matisse bronze, Large Seated Nude, in 1983.

Their collecting philosophy was to buy, first and foremost, pieces that “knocked our socks off,” Nasher said. But after seeing a historical thread running through the collection, they set out to shape it, acquiring pieces from the late nineteenth century to the present and complementing sculptures with paintings by the same artist (say, Alberto Giacometti or Pablo Picasso). They looked backward as well as forward, collecting examples of important artistic movements like Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism. Patsy Nasher, who died in 1988 after a series of long illnesses, was the innovator in acquiring art. She was the one who pushed to buy works by graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and even traded pieces of art with pop art icon Andy Warhol. She was a tireless researcher, building a library’s worth of art books and an international network of art dealers from New York to Paris to Basel, Switzerland. “Patsy was very much at the heart of the acquisition effort and was the curator of the collection,” Harry Parker says. The Nashers displayed their art publicly at NorthPark and in their sprawling, elegantly simple one-story brick-and-glass home, which was built in 1950 by Howard Meyer, a Dallas architect strongly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. The seven acres of woods and terraced garden outside became a sculpture garden where the Nashers installed huge pieces like Jean Dubuffet’s The Gossiper II and David Smith’s wheeled steel “wagon” Voltri VI—acquired from Nelson Rockefeller’s estate—among the tall trees and landscaped lawns. “People started coming to Dallas just to see the house and see the collection,” recalls Parker, who lived down the street.

Word spread about the growing collection in 1987, when the DMA mounted the first major exhibition of the Nasher painting and sculpture collection. J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery’s ambitious director, arranged to have a smaller exhibition travel to Washington, D.C. It went on to Florence, Madrid, and Tel Aviv, attracting international attention. The charismatic Brown, who had transformed the National Gallery from a stuffy institution into a vibrant venue for blockbuster, crowd-pleasing art shows, gave the collection the star treatment. Later he let Nasher see the blueprints for a national sculpture garden at the National Gallery, with the idea that it might one day be filled with pieces from the Nasher collection. Meanwhile, Nasher also established relationships with the Tate in London, which he visited often since artist-friends like Henry Moore frequently exhibited there. And last fall Harry Parker and Steven A. Nash, the DMA’s former chief curator who is now the associate director and chief curator of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gave the Nasher collection a major exhibition in the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. That set tongues wagging, although Parker now says he never considered his museum a serious contender. “With a few of the museums, it has been quite intense and relatively constant,” Nasher told me gently, refusing to name names. But he clearly liked being at the top of the museums’ dance cards. And he was a good dancer, never cutting anyone out and keeping his options open. “Even though Dallas is a town about closing deals, Ray loves open-endedness,” says Rick Brettell, who was the DMA’s director from 1988 to 1992. “He likes to set up situations and watch them evolve.”

Though Nasher had a tight relationship with the National Gallery until Brown left in 1992 to head a cable television venture, his ties to the Guggenheim have been even more solid in recent years. Nasher and the Guggenheim Foundation forged a long-term association in 1995 that allows the museum to select works from his collection and exhibit them at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Nasher helped design the museum’s Venice sculpture garden, which the Guggenheim named after the Nashers, and loaned it thirty pieces for its opening in June 1995. For the New York show this spring the Guggenheim cleared its spiral ramps and galleries for Nasher’s sculptures, threw a lavish dinner, and printed a five-pound catalog. And Nasher was on the design committee for the Guggenheim’s Bilbao museum and loaned three sculptures for its opening in October, including the haunting Bronze Crowd, by Magdalena Abakanowicz.

Still, even as recently as March, Nasher wouldn’t tell a reporter from the New York Times what he had decided to do. But there were clues to his intentions. Last year Nasher hinted that he’d consider making a gift to Dallas if a “proper facility” could be built. Mayor Ron Kirk, city manager John Ware, the city council, and the DMA got to work and put together their proposal: $15.6 million to be generated partly by museum fundraising and partly by a May 1998 bond issue. In January they presented it to Nasher, who was clearly impressed. “That really turned the table for him,” Brettell says. “It meant that the museum didn’t just want the collection, but the city wanted it too.” Nasher admitted that city hall’s enthusiasm “certainly did speed this along.” Yet he also had to look at the political realities. Yes, voters in the past had passed bond issues to build facilities for the DMA and the Meyerson, but Dallas also faced other pressing concerns: run-down neighborhoods, nightmarish traffic, deteriorating roads, sports teams clamoring for a new arena. Winning a bond election wasn’t a sure thing, Nasher told me. And even if voters approved the money, he saw red tape and delays ahead: fundraising drives, board meetings, city council meetings. “My feeling was this could be a very long program,” he said. Whereas through the foundation, he and his family could protect the collection and make things happen more quickly.

IN TRUTH, THERE WAS ALWAYS REASON to believe that Nasher’s sculptures would remain in Dallas. For one thing, he’s had a long relationship with the DMA as a trustee, donor, and lender. The Nashers gave the museum a large collection of Guatemalan textiles in 1983, for instance, and Richard Serra’s immense steel sculpture My Curves Are Not Mad is on long-term loan from Nasher and is prominently displayed at the DMA’s Ross Street entrance. Moreover, after more than a decade in which building was the DMA’s top priority, it has shifted its attention to exhibitions and collections. “That focus was something that Ray had been waiting for,” DMA director Gates says.

For its part, Dallas badly wanted and needed a sculpture garden. Museums in New York and Washington already had an abundance of sculpture in various museums and sometimes even warehoused works because of insufficient exhibition space. “If the collection was absorbed into the National Gallery or the Guggenheim Museum complex, it would not have the stand-alone, standout, high-profile impact it does in Dallas,” Steven Nash says. “There it really does redefine the artistic landscape.” Occupying a city block that’s currently a parking lot, the Nasher Sculpture Garden would for the first time tie together the DMA, the Meyerson, and the Trammell Crow Center to the south. “Right now it looks like a shopping center with a Neiman Marcus at one end, a Nordstrom on the other, and nothing in the middle,” Brettell says. Art experts say it’s rare for sculpture gardens to be so much a part of a city’s life. “That’s what is really fresh and important here,” says Robert Rosenblum, a professor of fine arts at New York University who has written about the Nasher collection. “I love the idea of it being in a public space.”

The sculpture garden, though, only answered part of the question of what Nasher will do with the whole of his sculpture collection. He hasn’t decided what to do with small or delicate sculptures, such as those made of plaster, wood, or low-fired clay, that can’t be placed outdoors. These include some of the best pieces in his collection: haunting wax-over-plaster busts by Medardo Rosso, Paul Gauguin’s wood-and-mixed-media Tahitian Girl, small bronzes by Picasso. Nasher will only say that he doesn’t want to split up the collection, leading to more speculation that it will all remain in Dallas. One possibility is that the indoor pieces may become part of a private museum run by the Nasher Foundation—perhaps at Nasher’s home, in the way that the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the Barnes Collection in Merion, Pennsylvania, and the Frick Collection in New York have intimate home settings. “The greatest plus for Dallas would be to have most of the collection at the house,” says Nan Rosenthal, a consultant in twentieth-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That would require a zoning change in Nasher’s exclusive neighborhood, which would be difficult but not impossible if the city wanted the entire collection badly enough. But first, of course, Nasher has to offer—and in typical form, he’s not making the first move just yet. “I’m still living,” he said wryly. “I’m still enjoying my house. The future is unknown.”

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