The news was shocking.
Late last month, Norma B. Marin, the daughter-in-law of the great modernist painter John Marin, gave nearly 300 watercolors, drawings and sketchbooks to a museum in Arkansas.
Maine was Marin’s spiritual home and where he did most of his important work during the last 40 years of his life. A New Jersey native, Marin began coming to Maine in 1914 and settled in the tiny community of Cape Split on the far Down East coast, where he died in 1953 at age 82.
The gift of so much work to a museum 1,700 miles from Marin’s cabin on the coast caught devotees by surprise.
But interviews with museum directors and curators in Maine, Arkansas and elsewhere suggest Norma Marin’s gift to the Arkansas Arts Center was neither random nor the result of a falling out with Maine’s cultural institutions, as some speculated when the gift was announced.
Instead, it was the result of a cultivated friendship between Norma Marin and the Little Rock museum and based on the expertise of the center’s staff, past and present.
The curator who will interpret this gift studied Marin as part of her dissertation, and previous museum directors built the museum’s reputation on artworks done on paper. The Marin gift also helps satisfy Norma Marin’s goal of expanding her father-in-law’s artistic impact beyond Maine, where his stature is secure and where hundreds of his oil paintings, watercolors and drawings have permanent homes in museums statewide.
“I think she saw an opportunity to extend his legacy beyond Maine and New England by putting a collection of works together that could have an impact on a part of the country that has not been as exposed to his work. It was a very strategic decision,” said Sharon Corwin, director of the Colby College Museum of Art, which holds the state’s largest collection of Marin artwork, with more than 60 images.
Portland Museum of Art director Mark Bessire said Norma Marin’s primary responsibility as steward of the Marin estate is placing his work across the country “and not just in the expected locations.”
“No one has to convince anyone in Maine how great John Marin is,” he said. “But there are some areas where he is not known as well.”
Marin was a modernist painter who became famous for merging abstraction and representation and because he moved easily between oils and watercolors. He honed his skills as a young man in Europe but found his stride during summers spent with his wife and son in a cottage overlooking Pleasant Bay.
He was prolific, producing about 4,000 paintings, drawings, etchings and other works. He was known as much for his style, creating angular watercolors of the Maine coast and abstract cityscapes, as he was for major works. He was a rare artist who achieved recognition while still living.
ABOUT THE ARKANSAS MUSEUM
As steward of the Marin estate, Norma Marin forged a partnership with Little Rock’s leading cultural institution. The Arkansas Arts Center opened in 1960, with early financial support from Winthrop Rockefeller, who would go on to become governor of Arkansas.
The annual budget for the museum, which includes a children’s theater and an art school, is nearly $6 million and attendance is about 235,000. In comparison, the Portland Museum of Art has a budget of about $5.5 million and attendance of 150,000 annually.
Until the 2011 opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in northwest Arkansas, which was founded by Walmart heir Alice Walton and has elevated the state’s place in the national art scene, the Arkansas Arts Center was the state’s top museum.
In the 1970s, director Townsend D. Wolfe recognized that building the museum’s reputation through a strong collection of works on paper was a more affordable strategy than collecting oil paintings. He secured a purchase grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Among the first purchases were works by Andrew Wyeth and Willem de Kooning, vastly different painters but both among the best known in their genres in the last half of the 20th century.
Discussion between the Arkansas Arts Center and Marin’s daughter-in-law began in 2005 at the suggestion of the National Gallery of Art, which owns the largest collection of Marin paintings in America. Curators there directed Norma Marin to the Little Rock institution and introduced her to its previous director, Nan Plummer, who succeeded Wolfe.
The Arkansas Arts Center has more than 5,000 drawings in its collection, dating to the Renaissance and including works by 19th century American and European masters. The bulk of the collection is from 20th and 21st century artists.
“Our concentration on modern and contemporary drawings makes us a natural home for great modernist drawings and watercolors like these by John Marin,” said Ann Prentice Wagner, the Arkansas Arts Center’s curator of drawings, who will assemble a major Marin exhibition in 2016 based partly on the recent gift.
Wagner came to Arkansas in 2012 after spending a decade in the prints and drawings department at the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington. Her expertise is American modernism, and she has written about Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe and other modernists.
She saw most of the Marin works on paper at the National Gallery as part of her dissertation research on the early modern drawings of O’Keeffe. Originally, she planned to include Marin in her dissertation, but ultimately focused on O’Keeffe.
“I remained eager to work on Marin,” she said.
Because the foundation for the gift was laid years before her arrival, Wagner was not directly involved. But, she said, “I can tell you that Mrs. Marin and people from the National Gallery did come here to Little Rock and looked at our collections. They were very impressed.”
MARIN PAINTINGS IN MAINE
The gift includes works in a variety of media and of a range of subjects, including Marin’s early architectural renderings, European views, drawings and watercolors of New York City and some watercolors of upstate New York. There are only a few watercolors of Maine, Wagner said.
The dates range from the 1880s to the end of his career, “telling many fascinating stories about how Marin worked and how his work developed over the years,” Wagner said.
Marin was part of Alfred Stieglitz’s circle of friends and artists, which also included O’Keeffe, Maine native and modernist painter Marsden Hartley and the photographer Paul Strand. In 1948, Look magazine polled 68 critics, curators and museum directors, who named Marin America’s greatest living painter. When he died in 1953, The New York Times described him as “America’s No. 1 Master.”
His paintings are in major museums across the country. Combined, museums in Maine have more than 100 Marin paintings, drawings and prints in their collections, most courtesy of Norma Marin, his granddaughter Lisa Marie Marin and the Marin estate. In addition to Colby’s collection of more than 60 Marin works, the University of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor has 26, the Portland Museum of Art has 13, Bowdoin has seven, and the Ogunquit Museum of American Art has two. His paintings are also part of many private collections in the state.
Norma Marin, who lives in Portland, New York and Cape Split, a village in South Addison, declined to discuss this gift, referring questions to the Arkansas Arts Center. In an interview with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 2012, she said she struggled to know the best way to proceed when considering gifts and requests for paintings and other artworks. She has governed the Marin estate since the death of her husband, John Marin Jr., in 1988, and assembled a team of advisers to help.
“I didn’t think about it as a young woman,” she said. “But I think about it all the time now. I am in charge of his legacy.”
‘IF IT’S GOOD FOR MARIN …’
Her sole motivation is placing her father-in-law’s work in exceptional museums and collections, an effort that she has accelerated in recent years as she herself has gotten older. “I’ve always gone by this premise: If it’s right for Marin and if it’s good for Marin, then it’s good for everybody,” she said.
Large gifts are rarely completed without cultivation and recruitment. But some are spontaneous.
Anne Collins Goodyear, co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, said her museum’s recent acquisition of more than 300 works from the collection of Herb and Dorothy Vogel stemmed from a friendship that dates to the mid-1990s but came together last winter. Goodyear and her husband, Frank, had dinner with Vogel to celebrate their hiring as co-directors of the Bowdoin museum, and Vogel mentioned she was searching for a home for objects from her collection.
“She knew of the Bowdoin museum by reputation,” Goodyear said, “and it struck both of us as a wonderful opportunity.”
She saluted Norma Marin for her gift to Arkansas.
“It is wonderful that she is public-spirited enough to make this gift, and the Arkansas Arts Center will be a wonderful custodian of that work.”
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: