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The gift of art

On display through the holidays at the Fine Arts Center

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John Singer Sargents Portrait of Elsie Palmer
  • John Singer Sargents Portrait of Elsie Palmer

It's not exactly news that museums depend upon the generosity of donors, private and quasi-private, to create their collections. The Colorado Springs Fine Art Center's latest exhibit, The Eternal Gift, highlights this by showing a dozen and a half works from the permanent collection that have been given to the institution over the years.

It's unfortunate that the exhibition's curators didn't choose to include more detail about each acquisition. For example, John Singer Sargent's great masterpiece, "Portrait of Elsie Palmer" is described as having been acquired by "community subscription" -- true as far as it goes, but here, with apologies to a certain radio commentator, is the rest of the story ...

The story begins with an extraordinary woman, Varina Davis Webb, born in Colorado Springs a little after the turn of the 20th century. Her father was Dr. Gerald Webb, the pioneering TB doctor; her grandfather, Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Varina (or Marka, as she was known) was a generous, consistent and dedicated supporter of the arts in Colorado Springs, as well as a sophisticated, widely traveled, and well-connected woman.

In the early 1960s, Marka decided that Sargent's magnificent portrait of Springs founder Gen. William Palmer's daughter, then owned by the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, ought to come home to Colorado Springs. Thanks to her perseverance, not to mention her acquaintance with some of the Albright-Knox's trustees, the museum agreed to a swap: If Marka and her group could find and purchase a Sargent portrait of equal quality, they'd do a simple trade. As Marka already knew, no such portraits were available -- she had simply figured that once there was a deal in place, she'd be able to rework it to her advantage. So she went back to the Albright-Knox, whose trustees finally agreed to a price of $30,000.

It was an incredible deal, far less than the painting was worth. Marka signed on the dotted line, and then announced to the astonished trustees that she didn't have the money, but that she'd be bringing them a check real soon. Somehow they bought it; and somehow Marka raised the money, a significant sum 40 years ago. Thanks to her energy and foresight, that magnificent painting, which would certainly bring about $5 million at auction today, will never leave Colorado Springs.

But not all gifts are eternal, and not all such stories have a happy ending. Museums change over time; yesterday's welcome gift may be tomorrow's albatross, to be quietly disposed of in order to free up funds for other acquisitions. Just a few weeks ago, the Museum of Modern Art sold a major Pablo Picasso to free up funds to purchase a major Jasper Johns. There were donors involved in the acquisition of both pieces, and it took some fancy footwork to keep everybody happy.

Closer to home, a few years ago the FAC quietly de-accessioned some paintings that my grandmother had given to them several decades ago. I was slightly peeved, but that's what institutions have to do to focus and refine their collections. Their responsibility is to the community, and that often means selling a few mediocre pieces to acquire a single good one. It's a delicate little dance --keeping donors happy even if you have to ruffle their feathers occasionally. And if it means picking up pieces as good as our Sargent, ruffle on!

Even if some of the feathers ruffled are mine.

-- John Hazlehurst

capsule The Eternal Gift: Selections from the Fine Arts Center's Permanent Collection

The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St.

Through Jan. 11, 2004

Hours: Tuesday Saturday, 9 a.m. 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1-5 p.m.

Call 634-5581

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