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Disney gives Smithsonian African collection coveted by Chirac
Most of the 525 works have been in storage for the last 20 years

3 November 2005 By Charmaine Picard at the art newspaper
From top left: Reliquary guardian head, Gabon, 19th century; Mother and child figure, Ivory Coast, probably 1920s; Figure, Benin Kingdom, Nigeria, early 19th century; Staff finial, DR of Congo, 19th century

NEW YORK. The Smithsonian Institution has received the Walt Disney-Tishman Collection of African art, a gift of 525 artefacts valued at $20 million to $50 million. 

Donated by the Walt Disney World Company, the collection will become part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art which is planning a major exhibition for February 2007.

The late New York real estate developer Paul Tishman and his wife Ruth began collecting the works in the 1960s. In the early 1980s the Metropolitan Museum in New York showed interest in the collection, organizing a special exhibition with over 150 pieces borrowed from the Tishmans, but the couple chose to sell the collection to the Walt Disney Company in 1987 for $1 million. 

The company said it would display the works at its Epcot Center, a learning-oriented theme park in Florida, where a broad audience might see it. Although Disney made numerous loans to museums over the years, it displayed only a handful of works at the Epcot Center, and the majority of the collection has been in storage for the last 20 years.

In a public statement announcing the gift, Michael D. Eisner, Disney’s former chief executive who stepped down on 30 September, stated that 50 organizations had contacted him about the African art collection and that he had received repeated telephone calls from French president Jacques Chirac requesting loans for the Louvre.

According to Bryna Freyer, the curator of collections at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, “Mr Eisner wanted the collection to stay in the US, at a museum that was free to the public and had a long-term commitment to African art”. Another factor may have been more personal. Mr Eisner’s wife, Jane Breckenridge Eisner, has served on the Smithsonian board of trustees since 1988 and is currently vice chairwoman.

The Disney-Tishman collection is known for its encyclopedic breadth representing 75 peoples and 20 countries and spanning five centuries. According to Ms Freyer, the Tishmans “wanted to have an example of every major known African art type. Mr Tishman was one of the last great generalist African art collectors. To buy these large-scale and figurative pieces today would be very expensive”. She added that the donation fills several gaps in the museum’s 8,000-strong collection of objects by introducing a greater selection of West African pieces while providing depth in areas such as the institution’s Central African art holdings.

A stipulation of the gift requires the Smithsonian to exhibit at least 60 works in a room labeled the Walt Disney-Tishman Collection for the next 30 years. The terms of the donation are fairly flexible and the museum can rotate this selection, and incorporate works from the donation into other exhibitions.

The National Museum of African Art was recently forced to trim its staff as part of overall budget cuts at the Smithsonian. Museum officials are hoping that the Disney gift will breathe new life into the financially struggling institution, raising the profile of the permanent collection while attracting additional funding to the museum.

As we went to press, the Smithsonian also announced that it had accepted a $45 million gift from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. This latest donation brings the total given by the Las Vegas-based organization to $75 million. The money will be used towards the renovation of the Old Patent Office Building where two museums are to be named after the Reynolds Foundation.

read also

National Museum of African Art curator Bryna Freyer, designer Alan Knezevich (center) and conservator Stephen Mellor: "African Vision."The Washington Post/ANDREA BRUCEafrican vision New discoveries about African art Smithsonian unveils intriguing finds in legendary private collection

Tishman treasures. Idoma mask, NigeriaTishman Treasures

A "First Look" at New African Exhibit Reveals Some Treasures

Disney-Tishman treasures collection offers tantalizing preview



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