Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Wealth, Art, and Passionate Collecting: The McNay Art Museum

The McNay Museum of Modern Art in San Antonio, Texas
It is with great interest that people go to museums for the works of art, but seldom do people take the time to investigate the origins of the artwork, or more specifically the origin of the museum's collection. Unbeknown to most people and in most cases, private collections have become the foundation of many a great museum. Some institutions, like the Uffizi in Florence, Italy, started out in 1560 as an extension to the Medici Palace to house government offices, hence its name Galleria degli Uffizi, generally known as the Uffizi. The private Medici art collection was displayed in the piano nobile, or “noble floor” of the building, and was open to the public; eventually the collection expanded to all the galleries and became one of the largest and grandest private art collections to become a public museum housed in its original setting.

In Italy, all the well known family names have large and small palaces, which have also been turned into private museums, for the purpose of displaying the extensive family art collections. Two impressive collections in Rome are the Doria Pamphilj, and the Colonna, both housed in the families' exquisite palaces bearing their names.

Another gem, though less known, the Musee Jacquemart-André in Paris is another private collection turned museum, and housed in the owner's original home. Édward André devoted much of his banking fortune to purchasing works of art which he and his wife Néllie Jacquemart exhibited in their Paris palais, completed in 1875. The collection is one the finest private collections of Italian art in France, which the couple amassed through their yearly travels to Italy. The museum opened to the public in 1913 and the collection is displayed just as the owners enjoyed it in their life time.

On this side of the Atlantic there are as many private collections as there are wealthy collectors, most of whom are unknown to the general public, and their collections are still in private hands. However, through the years there have also been a number of collectors who like the Medici, the Jacquemart-André in Paris, or the Doria Pamphilij and Colonna in Italay, their collections are world renowned and open to the public in the original setting where their owners once enjoyed them.

In New York City, the Frick Collection is probably the most well known collection turned private museum in the East Coast of the United States. Millionaire industrialist and great art collector Henry Clay Frick built his Fifth Avenue mansion to house his incomparable collection of Old Masters, nineteenth century paintings, sculpture and decorative arts, and with the specific intention to leave it to the public upon his and his wife's death.

Marion Koogler McNay c.1935
Another significant private collection turned museum and now open to the public is the Huntington, in San Marino, California. Heir to a railroad fortune, Henry E. Huntington started collecting art and rare books late in life, in 1910, when he was already 60 years old. In 1913 he relocated with his second wife, his uncle's widow, to a 500 acre estate in San Marino where the couple built a mansion to house their art and rare book collection. The art collection focuses on 18th Century English portraits, including Gainsborough's the Blue Boy, and Lawrence's Sarah Barrett Moulton: “Pinkie.” By the time he died in 1927, Huntington had amassed the largest ever assembled English portrait collection by one individual collector, and estimated to have been worth $50 million. As stipulated in his will Huntington's collection opened to the public in 1928.

In Texas, where everything is bigger and grander, there are plenty of collectors such as John and Dominique de Menil in Houston, who collected close to 16,000 pieces of modern art, and Kay Kimbell, successful Fort Worth businessman, who with his wife Velma collected significant works of art seldom seen in private collections. But notwithstanding the merits these collections possess in size and importance, they lack in intimacy and pale in comparison to Jessie Marion Koogler McNay's collection of early modern art at the McNay Museum in San Antonio.  Both, the de Menil and the Kimbell collections, unlike the McNay are housed in structures which were specifically built for the purpose of being a museum, and where the architecture, works of art on their own, is at times competing for attention. On the other hand the McNay, housed in its founder's Spanish colonial revival home, is one of those gems of a museum that does not boast, but quietly feeds the artistic soul of the greater San Antonio Metropolitan area, and imbues its visitors with an intimacy and a sense of personal relationship with each work art. The museum opened its doors to the public, for the first time, in 1954, and has the distinction of being the first museum of “modern” art in Texas.

On February 7, 1883, Jessie Marion Koogler was born in the small farming community of De Graff, Ohio, some 50 miles north of Dayton; Jessie Marion was the only child of Dr. Marion Koogler and his wife Clara Lippincott. But the Kooglers would not be long in De Graff; the following year, in 1884, the family moved to El Dorado, Kansas, where Dr. Koogler had invested in large tracts of grazing land. Call it luck or intuition, it is from these lands that the Koogler fortune derives after extensive oil deposits were discovered on Dr. Koogler's properties.

Poster for the 1913 Armory Exhibit
In 1900, after a rather strict childhood in which she was not permitted to participate in dances or other school functions so common among children and teenagers, Jessie Marion Koogler enrolled at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence—and much against her father's judgement who thought art was an undesirable subject for a proper young lady. Three years later, in 1903, she enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, a move that would forever change her life and her views on art. Liberated of what must have felt like a small town yoke, it was in Chicago that Jessie Marion dropped her first name in favor of Marion, the name with which she would be known for the rest of her life, and beyond. In Chicago, Marion's joie de vivre came into being in the company of other young, more liberated people her age with whom she could discuss a variety of subjects, and she met a number of artists who were making a living doing what they loved: art. In Chicago, Marion found a far more sophisticated cultural environment than her small town of El Dorado could have, heretofore, offered her.

Another watershed moment was in 1913. On a trip to New York City Marion attended what has been acknowledged as the first modern art exhibit in the United States, the groundbreaking and influential The New York Armory Show of 1913.1 It was at this shocking and eye opening art exhibit that Marion experienced in vivo, for the first time, the revolutionary works of the many European and United States artists whose canvases would in the future adorn the walls of her home: Braque, Cezanne, Degas, Gauguin, Henri, Marin, Pendergast, Picasso, Pissarro, Renoir, Sloan, Weber, and Van Gogh.

But one year earlier, in 1912, Marion had joined her parents who by then had coincidentally retired to Marion, Ohio; there, she busied herself teaching art for the public school district, and where she was highly regarded. The Superintendent of schools in Marion wrote in June, 1915, that McNay was,

...one of the best qualified art teachers I have ever known .... She teaches Art in a manner that arouses and develops the child's observation and enlarges his aesthetic nature.2

Women Crossing the Fields, Vincent van Gogh, 1890, Oil on Paper
Bequest of Marion Koogler McNay
It was there, in her new hometown, that Marion met Donald Denton McNay, a manager at the local railway. To the shock of everyone, the couple married on 9 December, 1917, in spite of the bride being ten years older than the groom, who had recently enlisted in the United States Army as a Sergeant. Shortly after the wedding, the couple left en route to Laredo, Texas where the young Sergeant McNay was stationed at Fort McIntosh, and where the couple lived in an adobe cottage. Ordered to Florida in October 1918, the newlyweds stopped in San Antonio, staying at the socially fashionable Menger Hotel. It was here, across the Alamo Mission that the McNays said their last farewells: Sergeant McNay left for Florida where he died shortly thereafter, a victim of the world-wide influenza epidemic of 1918 which killed an estimated 50 million people.3

Marion filled her void with family, friends, and more importantly with art, and four more husbands. Returning to Marion, Ohio, she married local banker Charles Newton Phillips, in 1921, but the marriage broke apart four years later. Back in San Antonio, with her mother, Marion married local legend and renowned ophthalmologist Donald Taylor Atkinson in 1926, and she devoted herself to creating her “masterpiece,” a Spanish colonial revival-style home with the help of prominent architects Atlee B. Ayres in partnership with his son Robert M. Ayres. In the process of building the house (1927-1929), Marion designed and applied many of the elaborate stencils to the coffered ceilings and tiles, as well as assisting with many other decorative elements in the mansion. Her attention to detail is evident everywhere, including the outdoors where McNay planted the 23 acre Sunset Hills site with southwestern botanical specimens, palms, evergreen pines, yuccas, and magueys (agave). While the building process was a personal success, Marion's marriage to Atkinson was not, and this union also ended in divorce after ten years of marriage.4

Hay Makers Resting, Camille Pissarro, 1891, Oil on Canvas
Bequest of Marion Koogler McNay
In the late 20s and 30s Marion often traveled to Santa Fe, and to Taos where she studied under Emil Bisttram. In Taos, she bought a painting by Victor Higgins who had been a fellow Chicago Art Institute student, and had also trained in Europe. Higgins was greatly influenced by the southwest style of the Taos artistic community, but he added another dimension to his work: that of modernism which he had seen in Europe and shifted the subject matter of his canvases away from Pueblo inspired settings, to landscapes, still life, and nudes. After 1918, and quite possibly one of the reasons Marion married him in 1937, Higgins shifted his style further into Cubism, Impressionism and Modernism. But the artistic nexus that connected them broke, with the end result that, as with her two previous marriages, Marion and Higgins divorced in 1940.5

Delfina Flores, Diego Rivera, 1927, Oil on Canvas
Bequest of Marion Koogler McNay
But Marion may not have been troubled by this last divorce; that same year she married Chicago art dealer Adelbert E. Quest. Marion, who appeared determined to not give up on the institution of marriage, must have realized she was fighting a losing battle: she and Quest divorced after only one year. But married or not, Marion always returned to her first love, Donald McNay, choosing his surname as her own after every divorce until she died.

McNay devoted her time and wealth to the arts, not just in purchasing art, but in supporting the art communities in Taos, Santa Fe, and San Antonio, and other areas lesser known outside of the “art" colonies. In San Antonio, McNay rescued the Art Institute after World War II forced it to close its doors in 1942—collateral damage of the United States entering the war. Arrangements were made to renovate an aviary on her home's grounds to include classrooms, offices, storage rooms, and a library. Under McNay's joint sponsorship with the San Antonio Art league, the school re-opened on October 15, 1943 as the San Antonio Art Institute.6

McNay never forgot her love for the Pueblo culture and she collected Pueblo, southwestern and colonial art, and was an active participant in the preservation of the local culture of New Mexico. In 1943 when Congress proposed preliminary studies for the construction of a dam on the Rio Grande, McNay opposed it on the grounds that it would destroy the shrines and culture of several pueblos. With her help and that of other conservationists, the project was defeated.7

Girl with Blue Eyes, Amadeo Modigliani, 1918, Oil on Canvas
Bequest of Marion Koogler McNay
In her later years, McNay withdrew from the public eye, spending her time helping with the administration of the San Antonio Art Institute, and planning for the future of her fortune, her works of art, her charities, and most importantly the museum that would bear her and her first husband's name:  The McNay Museum. The end came too soon, in 1950, when McNay succumbed to pneumonia; she was 67 years old.

In 1954, Marion Koogler McNay's Spanish revival-style mansion, on 23 acres of lush landscaping, opened as the first modern art museum in Texas. From the 700 works of art collected by McNay, the collection has grown to over 20,000 pieces, and includes works by Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alberto Giacometti, and Rodin.

As with most museums, the McNay has overgrown its original building and has been forced to expand, adding gallery space, a library, a new entry hall and gift shop, theater and other necessary rooms. While the placement of some of the additions, like the Stieren Center for Exhibitions, works well with the original structure, in spite of its decidedly modern architecture, the library in particular is at odds with the “home” atmosphere throughout the rest of the museum—jarring the visitor passing from an a small and intimate room in the main house to a modern, sun filled glass enclosure holding the Rodin sculptures, and leading to the Tobin Collection of Theater Arts and library. But this is a minor wrinkle in an otherwise fantastic experience: the ability to get lost in the thought of admiring these magnificent works of art as though one were in one's home, and unconsciously being always appreciative and thankful to the woman who made it all possible, Marion Koogler McNay.

McNay Museum, Stieren Center for Exhibitions
D. A. Pardo-Rangel

Photograph Credit: The McNay
Photograph Credit: Marion Koogler McNay
Photograph Credit:  Armory Exhibit Poster
Photograph Credit: Artwork, the McNay Museum
Photograph Credit: The Stieren Center

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