Couple's Gift Boosts Print Holdings at National Gallery of Art

The National Gallery of Art has acquired more than 5,000 new works from the collection of American prints belonging to Reba and Dave Williams and the Print Research Foundation.
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 3, 2009

Over the next three months, a pair of Connecticut art collectors will ship a trove of 5,250 American prints southward to the National Gallery of Art, increasing its American print collection by nearly 40 percent.

The donated works are from Dave and Reba Williams's five-year-old Print Research Foundation in Stamford, Conn., and include prints from the etching revival in the late 19th century through Andy Warhol's reign in the 1960s, with an emphasis on Depression-era works. The gift also includes the foundation's research library and the proceeds from the sale of the foundation's building in Stamford. In a separate transaction, the National Gallery bought 250 prints from the Williamses' personal collection.

Neither party would comment on the value of the donation or the private collection sale price. The New York Times estimated the entire collection's value at $5 million.

The gift includes works from more than 2,000 artists and adds significant breadth to the gallery's holdings, according to Judith Brodie, curator of modern prints and drawings. The collection "encompasses and acknowledges great works, but it also focuses attention on thousands of artists who made significant contributions," she said. The collection includes the greatest number of artists of any gift the gallery has received. "So instead of jumping from one highlight to another, it gives a broader and more accurate of account of the history of printmaking."

Brodie is especially excited to get Louis Lozowick's bold, modernist lithograph "New York" (1925) and Charles Sheeler's "Industrial Series, No. 1" (1928). The biggest chunk of donated art was crafted during the Depression. There's Thomas Hart Benton's "Departure of the Joads" (1939), which depicts Steinbeck's famously impoverished family packing up their jalopy. There's also Martin Lewis's "Arc Welders at Night" (1937) and Blanche Grambs's "Miner's Head" (1930s).

The public won't be able to view the works until the end of summer at the earliest, and an official exhibition of the prints -- original works of art (lithographs, etchings, woodcuts) reproduced by making impressions from a mold -- is years away.

After more than three decades of art collecting, the Williamses, now in their 70s, began thinking about where their collection would go when they died. Reba Williams said family members weren't interested, so they chose the gallery. Dave retired as chairman of investment firm Alliance Capital Management (now AllianceBernstein) and Reba is a writer.

Reba said waving goodbye to a Warhol series titled "Flowers" will be a "heartbreaker." "It's the first print we bought together when we got married in 1975," she said by phone from the couple's home in Greenwich. "We love them. But they're gone." Dave Williams spoke of the satisfaction of giving: "We feel wonderful about it."

Other pieces in the collection include a Pollock ("Coal Mine -- West Virginia") and what's believed to be the only existing impression of Winslow Homer's "The Signal of Distress." But there are also artists like Jolán Gross Bettelheim, a Hungarian-born and Cleveland-educated printmaker commissioned by the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal. The Williamses went all the way to Budapest to find her prints of industrial scenes, including 1943's "Home Front," a cubist view of a factory assembly line.

"In the art market there's a lot of doom and gloom, so we thought this might be a cheering note," Reba Williams said. " . . . It seemed like a time for a gesture of optimism, of our belief in American art and the gallery."

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