STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In the early 1950s, a wealthy heiress took on a mission: To save Realistic art from the maws of Abstract Expressionism. The results of her dedication are on display at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum; paintings by Edward Hopper, Raphael Soyer, Reginald Marsh and others.
NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports on what one major donor did.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Plenty of collectors want to donate artworks to museums. Nice. Do the museums welcome them with open arms?
BETSY BROUN: We say no thanks - oh, I don't know - 19 times out of 20.
STAMBERG: Betsy Broun directs the American Art Museum. No thanks, because the works aren't museum-quality or don't fit its' philosophy - all sorts of reasons. But in 1986, representatives from the Sara Roby Foundation called on the Smithsonian with an offer it couldn't refuse.
BROUN: And I remember going to the office and having this amazing conversation: We want to donate our Hopper and Stuart Davis and Reginald Marsh. And we went wow.
STAMBERG: So many of the donations were wows. The Hopper is a classic, "Cape Cod Morning" from 1950. A woman peers out the window, bathed in sunlight, but framed in darkness; black shutters on the window, a black-green forest just behind her house.
BROUN: She's hemmed in. This woman is hemmed in by these sentinel-like dark shutters, almost as if she's a target.
STAMBERG: There's no way out of this Hopper house.
BROUN: No steps, no door. You know, Hopper is famous for putting fences and barricades up in front of his homes. And these are basically homes with no entrance, no exit.
STAMBERG: "Cape Cod Morning" and another Hopper, "White River at Sharon," plus works by Ben Shan, Saul Steinberg, Mark Tobey, Louise Nevelson, all kinds of famous and not famous mid-century American painters, were collected by Sara Roby. A not at all famous amateur American painter.
BROUN: She was very competent. Brilliant, maybe not.
STAMBERG: But American Art Museum Chief Curator Virginia Mecklenburg says Roby was generous. Her father made a lot of money in cement in the 1920s and'30s, when all those skyscrapers were going up in Manhattan. In the early '50s, with that money, and guidance from her art teacher Reginald Marsh an Ashcan School follower - who painted seedy New York scenes in the '20s and '30s - plus other advisors, Sara Roby created a foundation to help American art and artists of her day.
VIRGINIA MECKLENBURG: She wanted to do something that counted.
STAMBERG: Reginald Marsh gave a dinner party for her in New York, and invited art scene movers and shakers - painters, dealers, museum officials. He seated Roby next to Lloyd Goodrich of the Whitney Museum. Roby asked his advice how could her foundation best serve artists and the public.
MECKLENBURG: As the story goes, he said: Well, hell. Sara, if you want to help artists buy their paintings.
STAMBERG: And so she did, almost 200 artworks by more than 100 artists - a major collection - plus a traveling program to take contemporary American art around the country. Trained in traditional, realist art, Roby - she died in 1986 - wanted to preserve that tradition against the encroachment of Abstract Expressionism; the drips and dribbles of Jackson Pollack, the revolutionary slashes of Willem de Kooning were wowing the art world in the '50s, and elbowing Realism out of galleries and museums. So she and her advisors cruised artists' studios and bought pieces hot off their easels.
Some examples: "Annunciation." In Raphael Soyer's 1980 oil painting, a young woman leans against the wall near a bathroom sink. She is shoeless, one bare foot on top of the other.
MECKLENBURG: Another is standing next to her...
STAMBERG: Curator Virginia Mecklenburg.
MECKLENBURG: ...wearing a turquoise slip and holding towels in her hands.
STAMBERG: Both women are pretty with dark hair, pointed chins they could be sisters. And they're pensive. The moment is intense. What's going on? "Annunciation." Has one told the other she's pregnant? Had an abortion? Made a mistake? The painting is realistic and mysterious - a puzzle to ponder.
Many different stages in a woman's life are painted in Philip Evergood's bright yellow 1952 canvas "Dowager in a Wheel Chair." Hemmed in by a yellow New York Checker cab on one side, and a brick building on the other, the aged lady - in elegant long black gloves and good jewelry - peers out at life from under her veiled hat. A pretty young thing rolls her wheelchair down the street.
BROUN: But for me the poignant thing is behind them on the sidewalk in the distance, you have a nurse or a nursemaid pushing a baby carriage. So we start being pushed around and we end being pushed around. There's a cycle of life story going on here.
STAMBERG: Poignant, funny, the pulse of the city is in this painting. A slice of mid-century existence, as are so many in this show, whether by Hopper or Dove or Burchfield, painters featured in Modern American Realism: The Sara Roby Foundation Collection. The donation of this collection to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art, in 1986, was like manna from heaven. It gave the museum works their own budget could not afford. And put them on the map, as a venue for important American artists. All because, as Director Betsy Broun says, an art-loving donor had money and a mission.
BROUN: Love donors for their personal vision and passion. They set out to do something with a burning intensity and it's, in fact, diff from the way a museum would collect. It's not that we lack passion. But we are not quite as free to pursue some highly idiosyncratic or quirky or intensely personal take on art.
STAMBERG: Sara Roby was free. The evidence is on view at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art through mid-August.
In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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INSKEEP: And you can see pictures from the Roby collection at NPR.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
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