For a Dear Museum: Love, Hallmark
It could be a greeting card commercial. A major corporation compiles a stunning multimillion-dollar photography collection and then decides to give it away. Museums around the world covet it, yet the corporation chooses a hometown institution. You can almost hear the music swell as the museum director wipes a tear of gratitude from his eye.
"We did it," the corporation says, "because we care enough to give the very best."
Fade out to the company logo — a golden crown, perhaps? It's a fictitious scene, but the facts are close to the fantasy. Last month the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., acquired the complete Hallmark Photographic Collection, considered the broadest and most important private holding of American photography. It consists of 6,500 images by 900 artists, and has an estimated market value of $65 million. Hallmark Cards made a significant portion of the collection a gift to the museum, which then purchased the balance with a donation from the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation.
"I think this is just a great story," said Peter Galassi, chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, where exhibitions have helped shape the understanding of photography as an art. "It's an absolute model of corporate philanthropy. A good solid company that doesn't make bombs, that doesn't destroy the environment, hired an extremely competent curator and gave him enough money to build this thing."
The collection spans the history of photography from 1839 to the present, with virtually all the major American players and the full range of artistic and technical achievements represented.
"The Nelson-Atkins henceforth has a photography collection that, for quality and scope, is among the serious collections in the United States," Mr. Galassi said.
The Hallmark Photographic Collection was born in 1964 with the company's acquisition of 141 prints by Harry Callahan, which were mounted in a one-man exhibition at the newly opened Hallmark Gallery at 720 Fifth Avenue, often cited as the first corporate art gallery in Manhattan.
The collection was a mere 650 images, although enviable ones, by 40 photographers in 1979, when Keith F. Davis became Hallmark's fine art programs director. "There were superb Harry Callahans, 180 or so works," Mr. Davis said in a telephone interview from Kansas City. "Walker Evans, Steichen, Cunningham, Strand. The foundation was a surprisingly strong, deep holding."
Essentially given free rein, Mr. Davis could follow his tastes and enthusiasms in adding to the collection, as long as the works were American. "There were no guidelines, no list of forbidden subjects," he said. "Rather, it was the company's belief that photography was an important art form, and why not have a collection of significant works that are important and that the public would like to see and should see?"
It was Mr. Davis's creative interpretation of the definition of "American" that broadened the collection, Mr. Galassi said. "Man Ray, who is American-born but did great work in Europe, counts," he said. "Andre Kertesz and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy count as American, too, though both were born in Europe."
Among the collection's holdings are 320 works by Callahan, believed to be the largest number in the world; 237 by Kertesz; 161 by Todd Webb; 127 by Clarence John Laughlin; 88 by Dorothea Lange; 84 by Carl Van Vechten; and smaller portfolios by artists ranging from Southworth & Hawes, Carleton Watkins and Timothy O'Sullivan to Lee Friedlander, Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman.
Many of the works are instantly recognizable: Lange's "Migrant Mother," taken in 1936 in Nipomo, Calif. A 1945 print of Joe Rosenthal's indelible "Flag Raising on Iwo Jima." The only known exhibition print of Alvin Langdon Coburn's 1912 "House of a Thousand Windows."
And "Fleeing a Dust Storm," Arthur Rothstein's stark image of a farmer and his two sons walking in the face of a 1936 dust storm in Cimarron County, Okla. "It's the most beautiful vintage print I've ever seen," Mr. Davis said. "We really do have those benchmarks."
While the Hallmark Photographic Collection inevitably draws comparisons to the renowned Gilman Paper Company Collection, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired last year, they differ significantly, Mr. Galassi said.
"The key strength of the Gilman is in the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, and it's international," he said. "The Hallmark Collection is American and it goes through the whole history of photography and is more evenly distributed. Probably its greatest strength is the mid-20th century."
Mr. Davis called the collections "interestingly different, and yet comparable in a variety of ways."
"The Gilman collection is wonderful," he said. "They paved the way for the recognition of the unique value of the rarest, finest, most beautiful works. Their example has truly changed the way that corporations collect."
A photograph from that collection fetched a record price on Tuesday, when the Met put 113 lots of photographs, including works from the Gilman collection that duplicated the museum's previous holdings, on the block at Sotheby's. "The Pond — Moonlight" (1904), a platinum print by Edward Steichen, sold for more than $2.9 million, a record for a photograph at auction. It was bought anonymously by a private collector.
The arrival of the Hallmark Photographic Collection at the Nelson-Atkins coincides with the museum's addition of the 165,000-square-foot, $200 million Bloch Building, a gallery and research center to be completed next year. Mr. Davis is to become its curator of photography while continuing to oversee the 3,200 works in the Hallmark Fine Art Collection.
"Overnight, we suddenly have a resource in photography," said Marc F. Wilson, the museum's director and chief executive. "And not only one of the great collections, but also an entire department to go with it. In the end it's the people of this region who will benefit."
In a broad swath of the Midwest — an oval sweeping from Des Moines, Iowa, to Columbia, Mo., to Oklahoma City and the Kansas-Colorado line — the Nelson-Atkins is often the first, and sometimes the only, art museum residents visit. "All of a sudden, this huge midsection of the United States has a publicly available asset," Mr. Wilson said. "Photography is very nonthreatening for a museum. There is no psychological or intellectual barrier. We've all snapped a picture. So, for me, that opens a wonderfully accessible window onto the rest of the museum. I hope visitors go from the photography gallery to the African gallery and the American Indian gallery and the Asian gallery."
Donald J. Hall, chairman of Hallmark Cards, has long served on the museum's board, but Mr. Wilson said he never assumed the collection would end up there. In the last 25 years, the collection has circulated in more than 60 exhibitions to 200 museums around the world.
Still, "we had always harbored the hope that it would eventually come to us," Mr. Wilson said, adding, "Just from the moral side, I know that Hallmark leadership cares about the museum and the cultural life of our city enormously."
Or as Mr. Hall put it, "We selected them because we like them."
A Hallmark card couldn't have said it better.