Melva Bucksbaum, who passionately collected art and frequently gave money to museums and artists across America, died at 82. Her cause of death has not been announced, but she was suffering from cancer.
Having been on the Whitney Museum’s board of trustees since 1996, Bucksbaum is perhaps best known for her involvement with that museum. In 2000, she created the Bucksbaum Award, which is given to an artist participating in the Whitney Biennial and now rivals the Pritzker Prize and the Turner Prize in prestige. Recipients of the award’s $100,000 prize are asked to do a show at the Whitney within the coming few years. Past recipients have included Mark Bradford, Omer Fast, Zoe Leonard, and Raymond Pettibon.
Bucksbaum was also a trustee at the Aspen Insitute and an emerita trustee at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. She and her husband, Raymond Learsy, were also longtime supporters of the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate, and Harvard University’s collections.
Bucksbaum and Learsy were ARTnews 200 Top Collectors regulars for their 400-work collection, which continued to grow over the course of their marriage. The couple, who lived in Connecticut, owned work by Nan Goldin, David Salle, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Serra, Marina Abramovic, Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, Ana Mendieta, Juan Munoz, Carroll Dunham, Vanessa Beecroft, Sherrie Levine, and James Lee Byars, among many others. Bucksbaum and Learsy were known to scout galleries together, at times buying work on the spot.
Bucksbaum and Learsy had initially planned to store their work in an old barn, but, after discovering that that would be a fire hazard, decided to build The Granary, a climate-controlled private museum in Connecticut. Designed by Steven Learner, who also worked on galleries House of Venison and Sean Kelly, The Granary was known for its intimacy—a 2010 Artinfo profile of the museum noted that it felt like the collectors’ home. Bucksbaum was a champion of art by women, and, in 2013, curated a show at The Granary called “The Distaff Side,” which featured over 100 works by women artists in the couple’s collection. “The Distaff Side” was the first and last show that she curated.
Prior to becoming a collector, Bucksbaum had dreams of becoming an artist. As a child, living in Washington, D.C., she would take the bus to galleries and museums, where she would find herself moved by some of the masterpieces she saw. In particular, Bucksbaum was fond of work by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
The art world knew Bucksbaum for genuine love of, and support for, art. “You can tell the [Bucksbaum Award] is meant to make a significant difference in an artist’s life, and yet it’s given without strings,” Helene Winer, the co-owner of Metro Pictures, told the New York Times in 2003. “That’s because Melva is a good egg.”