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Amazing act of generosity

In a stunning gesture of generosity to the Vero Beach Museum of Art, a John’s Island couple has purchased the runner- up painting in an annual selection of new works for the permanent collection, and donated it to the museum.

The portrait, a nearly fulllength figure in oil suggesting the styles of Renoir and Matisse, is by American impressionist William Glackens. Called “The Poppy Hat,” it had been passed over in the final vote of the Athena Society, a group of 71 leading benefactors of the Museum who each contribute $5,000 annually toward purchase of major works of art.

Though The Poppy Hat was widely admired by the Athena members, it would have been a budget-buster, valued at $350,000 —- the sum total of the society’s annual donations. The balloting, conducted after a lavish dinner, added two other works – a painting and a sculpture, each costing less than half that amount — to the museum’s collection.

Then as guests were leaving, William C. and Laura Buck, long-time residents of John’s Island, quietly disclosed their intention to make the magnificent gift of The Poppy Hat to the museum on their own.

Christine Evans, one of four founding members of the Athena society, was just leaving the party when the announcement was made that someone – they didn’t say who – had bought the painting for the museum. “The dinner was on April 1, you know,” says Evans. “I was sure it was an April Fool’s joke.” But it was no joke. We had hoped to talk to Bucks about their generous decision, but they indicated they were not seeking publicity, and declined our request for an interview.

The lengthy process of selecting this year’s Athena Society purchases had begun weeks earlier. Guests had been mailed photos of four paintings and a large sculpture; many had visited the museum the week prior to view the works in person. The pieces, all from New York galleries this time, were shipped in specially for the voting.

Then on April 1, the group’s members gathered in the museum’s hall, in coat and tie and cocktail dresses, sipping drinks and talking intensely, intimate in that they would soon become instant partners in a purchase that they all would share, and in turn would share with thousands beyond the room, and beyond their lifetime.

The Beaumont bronze figures were visible at the south end of the Holmes Great Hall, and the four paintings being considered were hanging on the walls surrounding Athena Society members. As members socialized and discussed the artwork , it was apparent that there were still final decisions yet to be made.

The Beaumont bronze figures appeared to be favorites, but some Athena Society members kept their choices close to the vest, said museum director Lucinda Gedeon. Others remained undecided until the last minute, caucusing over cocktails as supporters of the various works campaigned for their cause.

“Oh, they’re very serious about this,” says Gedeon. “Some are lobbying for their choice, other people are very quiet and won’t tell who they’re voting for.”

“It’s a great feeling to know that we are part of the decision process in selecting art for the Museum’s permanent collection,” Jill Kaneb told us.

This year, the field of five works recommended by the Museum’s Collections Committee to the Athena Society consisted of: a watercolor on paper by Everett Shinn entitled Winter Circus Caravan; a 50” x 60” still life, oil on canvas by Janet Fish entitled Orange Poppies/Fish Bowl; a landscape oil by John Sloan entitled Culebra Range, Early Autumn, painted in 1923; two bronze figures by Hanneke Beaumont, simply entitled Bronze #56; and The Poppy Hat, painted circa 1911.

The creator of The Poppy Hat, William Glackens, is an iconic American painter who died in 1938; as an artist no longer living, his body of work, thus limited, has become more valuable. Glackens was a member of a group known as “The Eight,” artists who put to canvas the realism of urban life. The Poppy Hat is a clear departure from that esthetic, and reflects the influence of the French impressionists – the result of a visit to Europe in 1912.

The two works the Athena Society chose to buy are by important artists who are still producing. One, the sculpture of Hanneke Beaumont of the Netherlands, is visible at the end of the museum’s long central hall. Comprising two bronze figures on two benches, the work sits in the garden just beyond a huge plate window.

The other work is a vivid still life by Janet Fish.

Raised in Bermuda, her use of color and light reflects a tropical sensibility and clearly suits the sunny temperament of the museum’s visitors. Fish went on to study at Smith College, and eventually at Yale, and her career-long focus of the workings of light shows itself in the painting now hanging near the museum entrance in the glass of a goldfish bowl, the translucence of her poppy petals and the opacity of a plain mauve wall.

The other two paintings, a quirky and exquisitely rendered water color of a traveling circus – a favorite subject of the artist, Everett Shinns — and a moodyhued New Mexico landscape by another member of “The Eight,” John Sloan, may not have seen the last of the Vero Beach museum.

Director Gedeon has been known to get a painting she really, really wants in front of the voting Athena Group again.

“I can never pick from year to year what they’re going to choose,” she says. “The curator (Jennifer Forbes Bailey) and I pick 20 to 30 pieces, and the collections committee winnows it down to five. Any one of the 20 are things we want for the collection, and are in line with our plan. Often , I’m surprised. This time, I was absolutely thrilled.”

Last week, the Athena group took a field trip to the Norton Gallery and the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach. In December, they went to Art Basel in Miami. In the fall, they are going to Minneapolis, which several members originally called home. They will be viewing works in museums as well as in private collections.

“We never expected it to grow so rapidly,” says Evans, one of four founding members of the Athena Society along with Georgia Welles, Hank Stifle and Joan Woodhouse. “We’ve been able to acquire some really wonderful pieces for the museum.”

The Athena Society started up six years ago with only 14 members, most of them members of the museum board and the collections committee. Similar groups exist in only a very few museums in the country, including Toledo and Jackson Hole.

Evans says Jackson Hole reports a welcome trend there, that when there are works of art that people regret didn’t win, they typically step up, buy and donate them. As for purchase of The Poppy Hat for the museum, “I was tickled,” Evans said, “because I had voted for the Glackens myself.

“We have had people in Vero buy works that didn’t win for their private collections,” she says. “Maybe one day we’ll be lucky enough to see one of them here again.”