Efforts to keep Still's art thwarted

Denver agrees to artist's demands

August 14, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Atreasure trove of more than 2,000 works by the late American painter Clyfford Still that has been stored unseen for nearly a quarter century in rural Maryland is being moved to Denver.

The collection, which local arts boosters had hoped to one day display in Baltimore, will be housed in its own building as part of a $100 million expansion of the Denver Museum of Art, said Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper.

"We're not going to make this just another museum but a facility that will be worthy of the work that will be in it," Hickenlooper said yesterday.

Known for his large, brooding canvases, Still was a seminal figure in the abstract expressionist movement of the 1950s. At his death 24 years ago in Baltimore, he bequeathed his works to his wife, Patricia Still, of New Windsor, Md. He had moved to a farm in Westminster in 1961.

His will stipulated that his artworks - which include some 750 paintings as well as more than 1,000 works on paper -be given only to a U.S. city that would build a museum dedicated exclusively to him. It specified in minute detail how the work should be displayed, from how large the building must be to the exact shade of Benjamin Moore paint on its walls.

The artist, a proud and prickly loner who was notoriously distrustful of other artists as well as of most established art museums, also prohibited any museum dedicated to him from displaying works by other artists or from lending his works to other institutions.

Despite these restrictions, over the years several attempts were made to secure the collection for Baltimore. But none proved successful, and yesterday local advocates expressed surprise and sadness over news of the collection's departure.

"It's a great shock," said Baltimore architect Alex Castro, who said that up to this week he and other cultural leaders, including developer C. William Struever, had been negotiating with Still's widow for nearly a year trying to bring the artworks to Baltimore.

"We had been told that we were in the running and that there'd be more news forthcoming," Castro said. "So I'm dumbfounded. We thought we could do him great honor here."

A person answering the telephone at the Still home referred all queries to Patricia Still's attorney, Frederick H. Stalfort. Stalfort could not be reached yesterday.

Denver's gain may not be all Baltimore's loss, however, according to some local arts administrators.

Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, said that Still's restrictions could make it hard for any museum to sustain itself financially.

"It's important for an artist's work that there be a critical number of institutions that can show it, study it, lend it and borrow it," Bolger said. With the restrictions Still placed on his work, "it will be a real challenge for a one-artist institution to maintain that momentum for the artist," she said.

American Visionary Art Museum director Rebecca Hoffberger also said the restrictions could make opportunities for exposure rare. Of the 2,000 works in the collection, the Denver museum will be able to display only about 75 at a time.

"The fact that he was able to convince Denver to do it is wonderful, but it's also significant that he wasn't interested in reaching as wide an audience as possible," Hoffberger said.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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