The Chicago Tribune reports that philanthropists Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson have donated 42 pieces from their contemporary art collection, valued at approximately four hundred million dollars, to the Art Institute of Chicago. This donation comes with the interesting proviso that the works will be on display, and not in storage, for 50 years. Read the details of this unprecedented gift below.
A major private contemporary art collection with a value estimated at $400 million is being donated to the Art Institute of Chicago by local philanthropists Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson, in what the museum is calling the largest gift of art in its history and a coup for the institution and the city.
Numbering 42 pieces, stocked with iconic works by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and many other instantly recognizable names and spanning a time period from 1953 to 2011, experts called it one of the most significant collections of its kind in the world.
“This is one of the landmark gifts in our 136-year history” and “a great gift to the city of Chicago,” said Douglas Druick, the museum’s president and director.
Museum trustees formally accepted the donation in a meeting Tuesday evening.
“It’s a powerful statement to have a collection of this international stature staying here in Chicago,” said Robert Levy, chairman of the Art Institute’s board. “It’s unbelievably exciting for the Art Institute, for the City of Chicago, for the entire art community of Chicago. It’s all good.”
The Art Institute will display the collection of paintings, sculpture and photographs in the second-floor galleries of its Modern Wing for the next half-century, as the Edlis/Neeson Collection, beginning in January.
That agreement was crucial, Edlis said.
“The Art Institute made us an offer that I couldn’t refuse, which is they will show the art for 50 years. A lot of collectors never get that chance,” said Edlis, who is on the board of and a major donor to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and has supported the New Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Edlis and Neeson, who live in a Gold Coast high-rise and in Aspen, Colo., keep their own collection at 200 works, he said, and have been frustrated by what typically happens with donated art.
“They always end up being shown for a short period of time, and then they end up in storage,” said Edlis, 89, who immigrated with his family from Austria as a teenager in 1941, moved to Chicago in 1950 and made his fortune founding a local plastics business, Apollo Plastics. “I kept asking them: ‘Do you need another warehouse full of art?’”
He said once the Art Institute had settled on the works it wanted, he and the museum’s experts independently estimated their value, and both came up with almost the same $400 million figure.
The significance of the gift, though, is far more than monetary.
“At every turn this fills a gap with an iconic masterpiece, but the essence of the story is pop art,” said James Rondeau, the Art Institute’s curator of contemporary art. “Chicago in general and the Art Institute in particular have been historically poor in collections of classic pop art, and this in one single gift changes that forever.”
“In recent memory I cannot recall a more important gift to an institution that comprises several generations of artists so clearly and so astutely,” said Laura Paulson, chairman of postwar and contemporary art at the auction house Christie’s. “I can’t think of anything in the postwar and contemporary art world this generous and this meaningful.”
Other works in the donation include sculpture by Cy Twombly, Jeff Koons and Charles Ray, photographs by Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, and paintings by Roy Lichtenstein and Gerhard Richter. The works tend to be pivotal ones in the lives of these artists, Paulson said.
“It’s not simply names and numbers,” Druick said. “It’s the works themselves. It’s the best of the best. These are incredibly passionate and discerning collectors who have very ably refined their collections over time. … It’s part of the tradition of the Art Institute. It’s not that we have X dozen Monets. It’s the Monets we have.”
Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of the MCA, said she considered the Edlis/Neeson gift a major triumph locally.
“The collection is going to Chicago. That’s what I’m really thrilled about,” she said.
“It needs to be said that Stefan and Gael are extraordinarily generous to both institutions. They have been very justifiably ranked among the top collectors in the world year after year. They are truly connoisseurs.”
And their collection includes “some of the highlights of mid-20th-century art,” Grynsztejn said.
Edlis said he is making the donation in part because he is almost 90 and doesn’t wish to saddle his wife, 71, with “the burden. Might as well do it in my lifetime,” he said.
Neeson agreed: “It’s going to be very exciting to see them there on the walls at the Art Institute. It’s a great feeling of joy that we have,” she said.
“We have some other nice things, but I’m very happy how they chose the 42 works,” Edlis said, referring to Druick and Rondeau. “It was their decision. Obviously, they thought about it long and hard because they knew they would be stuck with it for 50 years. It’s a very intelligent way of going about it.”
The gift was honed, Druick said, with an eye toward complementing and supplementing works the museum has collected.
“The 42 constitute those works of art which will do the most for us,” he said.
“There are things we obviously desperately needed, like Warhol. We had one. Now we have nine other Warhols so we can really tell the Warhol story.”
The paintings by Warhol in the collection include two self-portraits from 1964 and 1966, as well as a version of his “Flowers” series and “Twelve Jackies,” both also from 1964.
But the museum also wanted to be sure the collection represents who Edlis and Neeson have been as collectors, Rondeau said.
“It tells the story of a particular eye,” he said. “We wanted this to stand for what they’ve stood for over so many decades.”