The Bruce Museum, a Greenwich institution that holds exhibitions related to the arts and sciences, has received a collection of 70 works of art amassed by a local anonymous couple, making it the largest art donation ever to the museum in its 112-year history.
Figures in the area familiar with the Greenwich cultural scene are remaining quiet about the identity of the local donor. Despite calls to nearly 20 Greenwich and New York insiders by ARTnews, no one is revealing the name. However, clear signs point to a discrete auction buyer with an established philanthropic footprint.
An analysis of past sold and comparable auction prices for 17 works in the collection—or nearly 25 percent of the number of works making up the gift— reveals the collective value of the works is estimated at upwards of $50 million.
One of the works in the collection is Edward Hopper’s Bridle Path (1939), which sold for $10.2 million in 2012 at Christie’s, and Mary Cassat’s Two Little Sisters (1901-2), which sold for $519,000 in 2020.
In 2016, Bridle Path and Camille Pissaro’s Fenaison à Éragny, which is also in the gift, were showcased in an exhibition of works on loan from an anonymous alumnus at the University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum of Art. Local philanthropist Steven M. Grossman is a UVT alum and a major donor to the university’s business school. Grossman’s namesake charitable foundation was among the top four donors to give to the Bruce Museum’s expansion campaign in October 2020.
None of that is confirmatory, however, and Robert Wolterstoff, the Bruce Museum’s executive director and CEO, declined to identify the lender, citing reasons related to confidentiality.
The Bruce’s $60 million expansion project is due to double the size of the museum with a renovated 43,000-square-foot space dedicated to exhibitions and public programming. Construction for the project began in October 2020, but stalled in January 2021 when the museum announced a temporary closure due to interruptions in the renovation project, citing “growing pains associated with any major expansion.”
Calling the gift “unprecedented,” Wolterstorff described it as, “unmatched in its scale and quality by anything previously given to this museum,” in an email interview with ARTnews. ” It will help to establish a permanent collection on the level of our exhibition program,” he added. The Greenwich donors gave funds to the expansion in addition to the collection. The museum declined to specify the amount.
Wolterstorff took over the museum’s leadership in 2019, heading the expansion project dubbed “The New Bruce,” for the museum, which oversaw a $40.3 million balance in 2019, according to a tax document reviewed by ARTnews. Preceding Wolterstorff was the previous director Peter Sutton, a Dutch art specialist and Greenwich fixture who is credited with transforming the arts and science museum from a regional center into a mid-size museum.
A Gift That Could Put The Bruce On The Map
Experts across the American art field say the donation has the potential to widen the museum’s reach. The museum has long catered to a local and ultra-wealthy constituency, competing with neighboring institutions in New York for attendance. A longtime New York dealer of American art, Debra Force said the gift is set to be transformative for the Bruce, which she added, “has suffered over time because of its proximity to New York City.”
Anchoring the anonymous gift, which comprises work by Pablo Picasso, Winslow Homer, and Andrew Wyeth, is Edward Hopper’s last painting Two Comedians (1965)—a work depicting the artist alongside his wife interpreted as a gesture towards the end of their life together. It once belonged to Frank Sinatra and sold at Sotheby’s for $12.5 million in 2018.
In the 1965 canvas, Hopper renders himself and his wife, Jo, dressed as clowns as they step up to a final call on a curtained stage. The work is the last painting that Hopper ever made before his death at the age of 83 in 1967. Considered an ode to his wife’s influence on his career when the two artists fell ill, historian Gail Levin wrote of the piece, “The linked actors face the end together.”
Art historian Robert Hobbs told ARTnews that in the past the Bruce, “has been a fledgling art museum with occasional major shows,” saying the current gift “should set it on course to become the important art museum that Greenwich well deserves.” Wolterstorff said they expect the gift to attract attendees beyond the greater New York area, “even nationally and internationally.”
Other works represented in the bequest include examples by Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti, and Henry Moore. “A gift of this extent is a game changer,” said Lisa Hayes Williams, an associate curator at the New Britain Museum of American Art. Of the works coming into public holdings of a neighboring museum in the New England state, Hayes added, “It’s a benefit to us all.”
The gift marks a milestone for the museum still in a nascent phase of developing a permanent collection that can rival its urban counterparts. Wolterstorff said the museum is aiming to develop the now 25,000-item collection—the art holdings of which are primarily in Native American works, Hudson River School paintings and American Impressionism, photography, and ancient Chinese sculpture— around modernism and its successors.
“As we work to create a more significant permanent collection that is deeply relevant to today’s visitors, we are emphasizing global modern and contemporary art, from 1850 to the present,” he said.
Aiding this transition are a group of powerful donors, among them investor Steve A. Cohen, Grossman, and another local philanthropist William Richter. In 2019, Cohen gave $5 million and Richter $15 million to the renovation project—the first of the museum’s expansion efforts since 1992. All of the works have been promised to the museum’s permanent collection, which is owned by the town of Greenwich, a representative for the Bruce confirmed.
“There are many strategic collectors in this area,” said Maggie Dimock, a curator at the Greenwich Historical Society in Cos Cob, who noted the gift will expand on the town’s connection to American Impressionists that once congregated there in the late 19th century.
In recent years, major works by Hopper surfacing at auction after decades in private hands have given the increasingly sleepy American art category—known for attracting a conservative and highly private collecting base—a jolt into the modern era. Fittingly, Two Comedians, which straddles two defining periods of the art historical canon having been produced in the midcentury, now comes to the public forum during a period of transition as museums reckon with connecting the past to the contemporary.
“Its a massive get for the community, not just for Greenwich but the surrounding community at large,” said Morgan Martin, an American art specialist at Bonhams in New York. “It’s a cornerstone collection.”