A small group of people is changing the look of the Toledo Museum of Art and they have a good time doing it.
Pooling their money into a plump kitty, they debate the merits of works of art over dinner and cocktails before voting for their favorite. Majority rules.
Of 47 pieces they've bought, a few have become visitor favorites, such as Alex, Chuck Close's giant painting of his friend's face. Some have filled a gap, such as the museum's first works by Scandinavian and Latin American artists. They've even commissioned pieces that have been uniquely crafted for the museum (pale-green glass benches by Howard Ben Tre).
Most of what the museum acquires is decided upon by the staff and bought with very old money: namely, funds given by the late Edward and Florence Libbey who helped establish the museum. But in the last 25 years, the Apollo Society has become an admirable adjunct, spending $4.4 million to add to the trove.
Their purchases, along with 20 additional “also-ran” objects that individual members bought following the group decision, are beautifully displayed in Inspired Giving: The Apollo Society's 25th Anniversary Exhibition. Opening Friday in the large Canaday Gallery, this free show continues through Feb. 13.
Georgia Welles was inspired to start the organization by a similar group she and her late husband, David, belonged to at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
‘Alex,' by Chuck Close is another Apollo Society purchase.
“One of the things I'm proudest of is, in its second year the Apollo Society selected Chuck Close's portrait of Alex Katz. It's one of the museum's most popular pieces. We could never [afford to] buy that now,” said Welles, the society's chairman.
In 1987, Bob Phillips, then-curator of modern art, “opened our eyes” about Close's 8-foot-by-7-foot oil painting of a white, middle-aged man's intense face, she said. Phillips explained to Apollo members how it's comprised of thousands of small squares, each a painting itself. He told them to examine it up close, at mid-range, and far away, and about the equipment the artist, who uses a wheelchair, employed to create it.
Each Apollo Society member is obligated for a $5,000 annual gift although first-time members can start with a $2,500 donation. It has 44 members now, and has had nearly 60 at times.
It meets four times a year. A September picnic is social.
At an October dinner, the curator whose turn it is suggests areas for the group's consideration. The curator for Asian art, for example, might give a slide presentation pointing out what that collection needs; perhaps pieces from certain eras in India, Japan, or China. The group selects an area by a vote, and the hunt is on. The curator contacts dealers, monitors auctions, and attends international art fairs in November and March.
“The search is both a blast and excruciating agony,” said Lawrence Nichols, curator of European and American painting and sculpture before 1900. “When you go to the selection event, most of the time you're presenting works that will take the whole kitty,” meaning the items not selected must be returned to the dealers.
When it was his turn last year, he had about $200,000 to spend on a European painting.
“I contacted 40 dealers in Holland, Paris, London, Italy, and New York. I told them ‘I have a kitty of about $250,000; show me some objects,'” he said, figuring he'd be able to negotiate the price downward. He pared a list of 20 high-quality contenders to two.
In April, society members attend an educational event at which the curator will speak along with a historian, conservator, or auction-house representative.
Members receive written information about the objects under consideration.
At the selection dinner in May, the curator does a show-and-tell for each item. Members may make a case for their choice, and then they vote.
This year, they chose an 1820 Italian landscape painting by Achille Michallon.
A bonus for the museum is that members sometimes offer to buy the also-rans that were their favorite but were not chosen by the group. In 2008, the society selected a 700-year-old, 6-foot-tall wooden statue from Japan.
“And then three individuals came forward and bought two of the other three items I presented,” said Carolyn Putney, curator of Asian art, including a Japanese scroll and a golden screen.
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