Huge bequest for a small gallery


October 21, 2001|By Catherine Foster | Catherine Foster,New York Times News Service

With one fabulously generous gift, the small Currier Gallery of Art in Manchester, N.H., has just become a significantly bigger player in the museum world.

Last Wednesday, the museum announced that former Currier trustee Henry Melville Fuller, who died on Aug. 4, had left behind a $43 million bequest.

It's one of the largest single gifts to any nonprofit organization in the state of New Hampshire, and among the largest by an individual to any museum in the country. Boston's Museum of Fine Arts has never gotten a single gift nearly as big, and its budget and collections dwarf those of the Currier, a small 72-year-old institution with strengths in American painting, European modernism and decorative arts.

The Currier's budget is a mere $2.5 million.

The cash bequest will enable the museum to establish its first endowment earmarked solely for the acquisition of works of art, as well as to bolster its operations.

"It's almost unfathomable to get your hands around the magnitude of his generosity," said the gallery director, Susan Strickler. "I think we will become a more serious player in terms of acquiring art."

While the size of the gift stunned museum officials, it did not come out of the blue. This is not one of those stories where an eccentric, impoverished loner dies, leaving a fortune to a college or museum.

Fuller, a single and sociable man who died at age 87, was a wealthy art collector who made a gesture as sweeping and magnanimous as any by the Yankee industrialists to whom he was an heir. The Fuller family made locomotives and steam engines.

In addition to the cash bequest, Fuller also bequeathed his own collection of 40 19th century American paintings, including works by such artists as Thomas Cole, Eastman Johnson, Fitz Hugh Lane and Martin Johnson Heade. Also included in the bequest were Fuller's collection of 350 paperweights.

Sitting in a residential section of Manchester, the 72-year-old Currier Gallery specializes in European and American art, New England decorative arts and early 20th century Modernist paintings. About 60,000 people come through its doors each year.

It was named for Moody Currier, a New Hampshire native, and his third wife, Hannah, who after his death in 1915 bequeathed the then-considerable sum of almost $1 million.

The arts community welcomed the news of the Fuller bequest.

"It's what we needed, everyone needed, right now," said Mimi Gaudieri, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors in New York. "It's a very uplifting and exciting gift. There have been other large gifts, but they've been made to much larger museums.

"Those gifts have made a difference, but I can't believe they will have as much impact as this one will at the Currier, because of its size."

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