Baltimore collector, gracious philanthropist

Couple gave major gifts to Goucher, MICA and National Gallery of Art

Jane Meyerhoff : 1924-2004

October 18, 2004|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Jane Meyerhoff, a collector whose knowing eye led her, with her husband, Robert, to assemble one of the country's major collections of latter 20th-century art, died Saturday at Johns Hopkins Hospital after heart surgery. She was 80.

When the Meyerhoffs announced in 1987 that they would donate their collection to the National Gallery of Art, it was called the institution's largest single gift -- estimated at more than $300 million -- after those from its founding benefactors, who included Andrew Mellon.

Art curators compared her collecting instinct and passion to that of Baltimore's late Claribel and Etta Cone, the sisters whose donation of French art became the centerpiece of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"My mother was the curator, the genius behind the collection," said Rose Ellen Greene of Coral Gables, Fla. "The collection was always a joint effort, though."

Over the past 46 years, Mrs. Meyerhoff purchased many canvases by modern masters Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns. She displayed them in the family's home in Phoenix -- the 300-acre Fitzhugh Farm, where the Meyerhoffs raised thoroughbreds in the rolling countryside of Baltimore County.

A 1996 article in The Sun described it as "a private Museum of Modern Art."

"She was a master at arranging artists' works in a room," said Mr. Kelly, a painter and friend, from his home in Spencertown, N.Y. "She was a very strong and decisive woman, a woman who knew what she was and knew what she wanted."

He recalled that Mrs. Meyerhoff would enter his studio and say, "That's what I want."

"Robert and Jane Meyerhoff put together the finest collection of postwar art that I know of," said retired Sun art critic John Dorsey. "The five artists on which they concentrated, Johns, Kelly, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and Stella -- are among the greatest artists of the second half of the 20th century."

They also collected "extraordinary works" by other artists, Mr. Dorsey said. "Baltimoreans are fortunate that the collection is so near, at the National Gallery in Washington."

The couple decided to give the gallery their entire collection, more than 100 works by modern American and European masters. The decision caused consternation in Baltimore cultural circles, but Mrs. Meyerhoff stood by her decision.

"It never charges, not for special exhibitions, not for anything," she said in 1996 of the Washington gallery. "It is closed only two days a year. It has a `no deaccessions' policy, which means that the institution never sells its art."

When the paintings she collected were placed on display that year, the show drew more than 159,000 visitors in 113 days.

Last year, Business Week magazine ranked the Meyerhoffs in the top 20 of the nation's most generous philanthropists, a generosity that went beyond the world of art.

Concerned about the relatively low number of blacks earning advanced degrees in the sciences, the couple established the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 1988.

"Mrs. Meyerhoff has been an inspiration to the UMBC community because of her strong belief that students from all backgrounds can excel," said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the school's president.

Nearly 40 years ago, she was co-chairwoman of a fund-raising campaign to save and convert old Mount Royal Station in Baltimore into a library and sculpture studio for the Maryland Institute College of Art.

More recently, she endowed the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff House, formerly the Hospital for the Women of Maryland on Lafayette Avenue, where she was born and which is now a MICA dormitory. Mrs. Meyerhoff was a longtime MICA trustee.

"While she was charming, attractive and had a wicked sense of humor, I don't know any other collector who had such a passion," said artist Grace Hartigan of Lutherville, whose works Mrs. Meyerhoff collected. "She had a depth that was extraordinary. She had an absolutely instinctive eye for art."

Art journals said the couple's collection was monumental in size. For many years, ArtNews placed the Baltimore County couple among the top 10 art collectors in the world, a list that included the sultan of Brunei, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, the theater composer, and Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza.

"She formed a close relationship to the particular artists to whom she was especially devoted," said Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "She continued the great tradition of patronage of Claribel and Etta Cone."

Artist Frank Stella, upon hearing of Mrs. Meyerhoff's death, left New York City and drove to Baltimore County yesterday afternoon.

"When Jane acquired one of your paintings, she really lived them," Mr. Stella said. "To an artist, she was quite nurturing."

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