Even Museums Love Sara Lee

By Bretell, Richard R. | USA TODAY, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Even Museums Love Sara Lee


Bretell, Richard R., USA TODAY


Through the Millennium Gift of Sara Lee Corporation, 52 paintings and sculptures from the company's collection have been donated to 40 museums throughout the world.

UNLIKE MOST corporate collections, that of Sara Lee Corporation has only one source--its founder, Nathan Cummings. From the large and scattered collection formed by him over many years, Sara Lee identified a select group of 52 paintings and sculptures that had been produced over a century--from 1870 to 1970--by major European modernist artists. These works, all of which at one time had been owned by Cummings, were acquired by Sara Lee during the course of 20 years in tribute to him as both businessman and art collector. Now, two decades after the Sara Lee Collection was begun, it is to be given away to museums throughout the U.S. and internationally.

This act, unprecedented for an American corporation, is the culmination of a fascinating history of a private collection, a public company's decision to take that collection corporate through the act of purchase, and its ultimate decision to take the collection public through the medium of major urban art museums. The last decision will ensure that these important works by artists from Claude Monet to Henry Moore will be seen in perpetuity by diverse publics.

Chicago, where Cummings moved his business in 1945 to create what was to become Sara Lee and where the corporation's worldwide headquarters remain today, has been awarded the largest share of this gift--12 works--in recognition of the importance the company attaches to its home city. The Museo d'Arte de Ponce (Puerto Rico) will get a pair of Auguste Renoir busts, while 38 other museums have been designated to receive single works for their permanent collections as part of the Millennium Gift of Sara Lee Corporation.

The Nathan Cummings Collection. Throughout the latter part of his life (1896-1985), Nathan Cummings was known equally as a business genius and an art collector. His collection of companies was considered a textbook model for the many conglomerate corporations that were being created in America during the postwar years. His art collection, formed mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, was one of the few "new" collections of modern European painting and sculpture formed after World War II to be recognized by major exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Many other institutions in America and Europe also benefited from Cummings' generous lending policies.

This notion of a collection that was at once constantly evolving and shared with the public places Cummings in a long tradition of enlightened American donor-collectors. Like numerous self-made men, he sought the advice of many and then did what he wanted, using the advice that accorded with his instincts and discarding the rest. Not only did he develop personal relationships with Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Fernand Leger, Jean Arp, Giacomo Manzu, and others, he also befriended many of the greatest dealers and collectors of modern art in Europe and the U.S. Yet, Cummings was never swayed simply by reputation and, unlike many other collectors of his generation, was capable of being moved by the work of artists with no critical standing and no "official" backing from a major dealer or collector.

Cummings was fond of admitting his complete lack of formal education in fine art history and appreciation. He never attended college--or even high school--and was so involved in business from an early age that he had no leisure time for a conventional education in the arts. In contrast to other major collectors of his generation--such as David Rockefeller, Joseph Pulitzer, and Philip Johnson--Cummings had never been taught a system of aesthetic values and concomitant social connections that could form the basis of an important collection of modern art. Perhaps for that reason, his collection was never shown at that institutional arbiter of modernist collecting, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, although he did lend it important objects for exhibitions. …

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