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
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.
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