Fifty years ago, when Emily Rauh Pulitzer worked as an assistant art curator at Harvard University, she knew the buildings housing the university’s vast art collection needed renovation. Now she’s taken a striking step to help: Friday, the Harvard Art Museum announced Pulitzer’s donation of $45 million for its ambitious museum renovation project, along with a gift of 31 artworks valued at about $200 million by top modern and contemporary artists including Picasso, Modigliani, and Giacometti.
The largest donation in the museum’s history, Pulitzer’s gift comes at a time when the Harvard Art Museum has just embarked on a dramatic renovation of its central Quincy Street site: Harvard’s linked Fogg and Busch-Reisinger museums closed earlier this year and will not reopen until 2013.
The donation, which comes after three years of discussions, constitutes a major addition to Harvard’s art collection, including several works of historical importance by Edouard Vuillard, Andre Derain, Constantin Brancusi, Picasso, and Richard Serra. One piece is already on display in Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum: Serra’s 1969 sculpture “Untitled (Corner Prop Piece).”
Pulitzer, 75, is the widow of the late newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer Jr. Her relationship with the Harvard Art Museum dates back to 1957, when she became assistant curator of drawings. She received her master’s degree in the arts from Harvard in 1963. She also serves on the university’s board of overseers and has been a chairwoman and member of the Harvard Art Museum’s visiting committee and collections committee. Her husband served on the university’s board of overseers from 1976 to 1982.
As an assistant curator, Pulitzer worked in Harvard’s Fogg Museum. Built in 1927, the Fogg lacks storage space, has a leaky roof and outdated plumbing and electrical systems, and has no climate control in its galleries, where large floor fans circulate air in the summertime.
In an interview by phone Friday from St. Louis, where she lives, Pulitzer said that her financial commitment came after years of following Harvard’s plans to renovate the Quincy Street complex, as well as its plans to build a new museum for contemporary art in Allston. In recent years, Pulitzer has met with Harvard Art Museum director Thomas W. Lentz and architect Renzo Piano multiple times to discuss the Quincy Street project. Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust flew to St. Louis last fall to meet with Pulitzer and stressed that she views a commitment to the arts as a central part of the university’s mission.
“I wanted to be sure that the 32 Quincy St. project would proceed and would proceed in a manner that would really solve a great many of the needs of the art museum,” said Pulitzer. “By the time I made the gift, I felt very, very sure they were going about it in a great way.
Pulitzer, who typically goes by “Emmy,” has built a collection over the years that’s the envy of curators of modern and contemporary art. She and her husband have already given millions of dollars worth of artworks to Harvard and her adopted hometown’s Saint Louis Art Museum.
The works in the current Harvard gift display a discerning collector’s sensibility. Though the pieces span more than a century, there are strong links between them, both historically and thematically. There’s an emphasis on Cubism and Minimalism, a discernible love of sculpture, and evidence of wit in works by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein, Bruce Nauman, and Claes Oldenburg.
“We’re trying to bring what we consider a collection with serious weaknesses into greater balance with our greater collections,” said Lentz Friday. “What Renzo Piano is going to give us is not only a state-of-the-art facility but one that has more room for exhibitions and an expanded platform for modern and contemporary art.”
Pulitzer’s gift comes roughly six months after David Rockefeller, a Harvard classmate of Joseph Pulitzer Jr., gave the museum about $30 million.
Last fall, Faust paid a two-day private visit to Pulitzer in St. Louis as part of the college’s effort to woo her to make a donation. Faust toured the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, a private museum Pulitzer built, and talked with Pulitzer about the task force Faust had formed at Harvard to examine the place of the arts at Harvard.
Faust said Pulitzer’s gift is heartening, particularly as the economy sours.
“It’s also marvelous to see generosity and to recognize that generosity persists over time,” Faust said. “In the realm of art, we’re reminded of the long term and the enduring and that which transcends the immediate. One imagines people appreciating these works centuries from now.”
No decision has been made on what part of the renovated Quincy Street complex will be named after Pulitzer, though Lentz said he expected she would be honored in that fashion. It also isn’t clear how soon the public will be able to see Pulitzer’s donated works. Lentz said some of the pieces will go on display when the renovated space reopens in 2013. Later, when Harvard realizes its longtime hope of building an Allston contemporary-art museum, some of Pulitzer’s work will probably be moved across the Charles River, he said.