A modest woman promises $10 million for American wing

Generous Gift

Bma

January 17, 2007|By Mary Carole McCauley and Glenn McNatt | Mary Carole McCauley and Glenn McNatt,Sun reporters

The Baltimore Museum of Art has been promised $10 million from a local philanthropist - the largest cash gift made by one person in the institution's 92-year history. Dorothy McIlvain Scott's donation comes amid a spate of presents from various benefactors to Baltimore cultural groups.

Scott, 94, is known in the arts community as much for her modesty as for her generosity. Her bequest will allow the museum to expand its American collection of furniture and decorative arts into the present day.

"Our American collection focuses on the 18th and early 19th centuries. This will allow us to broaden our collection chronologically, into the 20th-century decorative arts," said Doreen Bolger, the museum's director. "The present becomes a lens to look at the past. It will become much more exciting for people because it will be more relevant to their current situations."

Over the decades, Scott has given to the museum nearly 200 pieces of Americana, including an 18th-century vanity with long legs as slender and delicate as those of a racehorse. Her newest gift will allow these artifacts to be removed from their current exhibition space in the basement to galleries on the first floor.

The American collection will be housed in the newly renamed Dorothy McIlvain Scott Wing, just inside the museum's historic entrance.

Scott's pledge is the most recent in a series of million-dollar gifts to Baltimore charitable organizations from such diverse sources as the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds, philanthropist Suzanne F. Cohen, actress Jada Pinkett Smith and the couple who anonymously donated $1 million to the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival.

Stiles T. Colwill, president of the BMA's board of directors, notes that the $10 million pledge furthers a tradition of giving at the museum.

Many collections

"With this exceptional gift, Miss Scott joins the legendary cadre of great women philanthropists - Claribel and Etta Cone, Mary Frick Jacobs and Saidie A. May - each of whom have donated outstanding collections and have had gallery wings named after them," he says.

Indeed, the BMA is sometimes called a "collection of collections." The museum is internationally renowned for the Cone Collection of post-impressionist and modern paintings and sculptures, particularly its holdings by Henri Matisse. In 2002, the 3,000 artworks in that single collection were valued at nearly $1 billion.

The Jacobs group consists of European masterpieces from the 15th through 19th centuries, while May's artworks include many works by surrealist artists.

Colwill, an interior designer and antiques expert, adds that he was "ecstatic" when six months of negotiations with Scott, his longtime friend, recently were finalized. "The board chairman of any museum in America would want to turn a triple somersault upon receiving a gift like this," he says.

Bolger thinks that Scott's pledge might be the largest cash gift ever given by an individual to a Baltimore arts organization in one lump sum.

In 1982, Joseph Meyerhoff donated $10 million of the $23 million it would cost to build a new symphony hall. But that extraordinary gift was spread over a period of years.

In addition to Scott's current gift, she has donated millions of dollars to, and has served on the boards of, a slew of charitable organizations from Union Memorial Hospital to the Walters Art Museum to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

But Scott always has been extremely reluctant to take credit for her works. For instance, she declined to be interviewed for this article or to have her photograph published.

"I live a very private life," she told John Dorsey, The Sun's former art critic, in 1992.

"I was raised that way, and it's difficult for me to change. I don't want ever for people to think that I'm above them or showing off or putting on airs. I just want the museum to have, and not a whole lot about myself."

Contemporaries

According to Colwill and to Scott's attorney, Jeff Gonya, Scott was born in 1912 - two years before the BMA was founded.

"She's virtually the same age as the museum," Bolger says. "She came here often with her parents as a young girl."

A story that Scott likes to tell is of one of these early visits. After mounting the BMA's broad sweep of marble steps, she came face to face with Auguste Rodin's behemoth bronze, the Thinker, which at the time was displayed outdoors.

The child was thunderstruck. "Who's that man?" she asked her mother.

That experience began a mutually beneficial relationship between the museum and patron that has lasted for more than eight decades. Bolger thinks the recent spate of gift-giving to arts groups similarly "reflects the culmination of long relationships between donors and institutions."

She notes that the Meyerhoff family has been associated with the symphony for generations. Pinkett Smith honed her craft at the Baltimore School for the Arts, which is slated to receive $1 million from the performer.

People who donate large sums also receive tax breaks. But Rebecca Hoffberger, director and founder of the American Visionary Art Museum, thinks that tax considerations are secondary to the pleasure that donors receive from giving.

"It's about being able to take your life's passions and translating it into benefit for future generations," she says.

Domino effect

It's also well known to development officials that a large gift tends to have a domino effect that results in other gifts - which might account, in part, for the current flurry of charitable announcements.

"People stepping forward and making a gesture for the public good raise the bar," says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum. "They invite others to do the same."

The $10 million from Scott will be used for the American wing's endowment, for general operations and for artistic programs.

The wing will be formally renamed and dedicated at the BMA's annual meeting in June.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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