What makes a great patron? There are as many answers as there are great patrons in the institutional art world. Typically, financial support plays a major role. But a truly exceptional patron, according to Guggenheim Museum director Richard Armstrong, has the capacity to imagine the uncharted heights an institution can achieve.
In a catalogue devoted to Marieluise Hessel’s art collection, Armstrong cites her as such a visionary. In 1990 Hessel cofounded the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, with her own collection serving as a primary resource for aspiring curators’ study. The Center’s graduate program, with a history of attracting international talent, followed four years later. The Hessel Museum of Art opened in 2006 as the permanent home for some 1,400 of its benefactor’s endowed works. CCS Bard was one of the first programs of its kind to offer curatorial training; it still ranks at the top of the field. More recently, Hessel, like a parent providing for a child for life, laid the groundwork for CCS Bard’s financial independence. Last year, the school announced a $50 million endowment to mark its anniversary: a $25 million gift from Hessel’s foundation and an equal sum from investor George Soros, a longtime Bard supporter (and the father of Alexander Soros, a current trustee on the college’s board).
The paired donations are part of a much larger $1 billion endowment fund drive that the college launched last year—and secured, in short order. With financial soundness established, the most pressing question for CCS Bard has become: What does all this mean for the program’s future?
CCS Bard came to be before the globe-trotting star curator became a type, back when the nascent program was an experiment in the free-spirited approach to education for which Bard College continues to be known. In 1988, Leon Botstein, a renowned conductor and Bard president since 1975, met Hessel, a German-born beauty queen turned astute businesswoman, who began collecting in the 1960s, with a focus on German Expressionism and American Minimalism. By the time of their meeting, Hessel’s collection had expanded in scope, with newer additions reflecting some of the era’s prevailing concerns—women’s liberation, the AIDS crisis, rampant consumerism—represented by the works of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Cindy Sherman, and Jenny Holzer, among others.
“Artists can show us what we humans are made of,” Hessel recalled a few years ago in a conversation with Tom Eccles, CCS Bard executive director and the founding director of the Hessel Museum of Art, for the first-ever Hessel Collection catalogue. Artists, she continued, “can introduce us to everything: beauty, ugliness, feelings, history, technology … the topics are endless. They just have that incredible talent to visually open doors for us that we often would not dare to open.”
At a time when collectors typically flaunted their collections in museums, it was novel to create a center dedicated to all things curatorial; the permanent loan of Hessel’s collection to Bard enabled students to research and organize exhibitions. Hessel formed her namesake foundation, which now controls the art, to assure that the collection remains intact after her death. “I wanted to make sure that nobody in the future would be tempted to sell some of the most valuable works to raise needed funds for other projects,” she told Eccles. “I wanted to make sure that the collection stays complete to tell the story of our time as artists saw it and as I documented it.”
In the years since, more than 300 students have completed the graduate program, many of whom have gone on to high-profile careers, including Candice Hopkins, Gabi Ngcobo, Anne Ellegood, Tobias Ostrander, Inés Katzenstein, José Luis Blondet, Ruba Katrib, and Cecilia Alemani, artistic director of this year’s Venice Biennale. The program has drawn major artists to organize exhibitions there, including Amy Sillman, Rachel Harrison, and Martin Creed. Even better, the Hessel Foundation’s close relationship with Bard enabled the creation of the college’s museum and the 2015 expansion of its library, exhibition spaces, and archives.
Though currently well set, Bard was founded in 1860 without an endowment and, despite a strong academic reputation, long remained endowment-poor. That reality, coupled with several costly expansions, occasioned serious financial trouble beginning in the early 2000s. The $1 billion endowment drive launched last year traces back in part to a 2016 effort to buoy the college’s credit score; Moody’s Investors Service had downgraded it to “junk status” based on factors including increasing dependency on a credit line, declining total cash, and heavy borrowing from its endowment. In Moody’s opinion, “The ongoing depletion of liquidity and increased exposure to bank agreements heightens the prospects for a liquidity crisis in the absence of extraordinary donor support.”
Enter George Soros, who the year before had allocated $1 billion to establish the Open Society University Network, which promotes the integration of civic engagement and research, with Bard as a founding partner. In March 2021, Soros pledged $500 million to Bard College to bolster its finances on the condition that it meet or exceed that number within five years. At the time of the announcement, Bard had already raised $250 million; by that August, the college had brought in around $800 million, making Soros’s half-billion-dollar pledge a reality—as well as one of the largest-ever donations to a U.S. institution of higher education. Hessel followed that same month with her own $50 million gift.
Eccles recalled that when Bard got the money, he was pleased to be able to “take a deep breath” and contemplate how to use it deliberately and strategically. “Don’t spend all the money at once,” he told himself. “What you don’t want to do is expand rapidly. What you do want to do is look at the needs of the students.”
What the students told Eccles they needed was even more art—more than the 2,000 paintings, sculptures, photographs, and multimedia installations already available to them—which is why efforts are underway to expand the original Hessel collection. While students have enjoyed access to it, the collection is by no means encyclopedic. Like any collector, Hessel’s choices were idiosyncratic and guided by personal taste—in this case with a nonhierarchical focus on historic movements: Arte Povera, New Image Painting, and Pattern and Decoration, to name just a few.
Increasingly, CCS Bard students, many of whom hail from outside the U.S. and Europe, have asked Hessel and the Center to prioritize inclusive collection-building. And as the collection has transitioned from a private endeavor to a public, pedagogical resource, aims shared among all involved include filling in gaps that have become evident over time.
In 2017, Serubiri Moses, then a visiting faculty member (and a cocurator of last year’s “Greater New York” exhibition at MoMA PS1), organized a survey show exploring artists’ relations to community and territory. Given the exhibition’s focus, Moses and his fellow curators—including Drew Kahuʻāina Broderick, Srinivas Aditya Mopidevi, Mathilde Walker-Billaud, and Julia Eilers Smith—wanted to include Indigenous and Native American artists who were not in the Hessel collection. “When facilitating such diverse voices, it was important to have the [Hessel] collection as a guide to not only the gaps” but also to showcase works by Indigenous artists that are available in the collection for students to study, Moses said. “These were personal interests from being born in Uganda and raised in a postcolonial country—I can relate to land ownership.” The show, titled “States of Presence,” ended up including artworks by Tracey Baran, Mona Hatoum, and Mai-Thu Perret, all of whom were already represented in the Hessel Collection.
Moses said some of his students asked for work by artists from the African continent or who identify as Afro-Latinx. One student asked for help assembling artworks for an exhibition of Black Caribbean artists. The goal in fielding such questions, he said, is to engage notions of the curator as someone who actively shapes art history with the objects they choose to circulate. “A whole field could be influenced by the actions of one curator,” Moses said.
For his part, Eccles welcomes a dialogue with students on the future of CCS Bard. “The idea of the curator has changed—is changing,” he said. “It helps to build a school that listens to its younger students. We’re expanding the footprint of the collection, and to know it will one day be handed over to a new generation is so incredibly inspiring.”
If there is a grand motivation to the collection that Hessel has assembled, it’s her perpetual appetite for “the art of our time,” as she called it. Hessel has engaged with gallerists such as Mariane Ibrahim, who specializes in art from Africa and its diaspora, and new additions to the collection include work by Nigerian artist Toyin Ojih Odutola.
“For me, the most important aspect of collecting is how the artworks speak to their time and place,” Hessel told ARTnews. “Thus, the focus of the collection evolves with our society. I have always been drawn to the human aspect of art, the power to express human experience, and I believe this creates a collection that resonates with our students, for whom the collection is ultimately built.”