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Columbian Art

How a university bequest can go wrong.

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When it comes to modern art, Nicholas Lemann is, by his own admission, “not a big expert.” Which isn’t to say he doesn’t have great taste. After taking over as dean of Columbia’s graduate journalism school in 2003, he ventured into university storage for some art to put in his office. There, amid a “whole lot of pictures of retired deans,” one 1923 painting stood out: Portrait of My Sister Carrie W. Stettheimer With Doll’s House. “I honestly had never heard of [the artist],” says Lemann. “I just liked it.”

Turns out it was one of many works Columbia has by Florine Stettheimer, a Deco-influenced early Modernist who’s never really gotten her due. “She doesn’t fit into any of the big movements,” says Barbara Haskell, a curator at the Whitney (which gave her a retrospective in 1995). “Oh my God!” she gasped upon hearing that Stettheimers decorate several Columbia offices.

Lemann’s decorative luck came to light when curators asked to borrow his painting and three others from Columbia for the new Jewish Museum show, “The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons.” It celebrates such salonières as Gertrude Stein and Stettheimer, who painted a few of the parties she and her sisters threw here between the wars for Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz, and others.

How did an important artist’s work end up at an institution with no public space to display it? Family money meant that Stettheimer, who died in 1944 at 72, never needed to sell work. “Letting people have your paintings,” she said, “is like letting them wear your clothes.” After her sisters’ deaths, the executor gave 45 works to 37 institutions, and 50 to Columbia in 1967 in anticipation of a new arts center. It was never built. To honor the bequest terms, the university displays several in what’s now a restricted reading room in Avery Library. While Carrie’s on sabbatical, Lemann has filled his wall void with a portrait of Joseph Pulitzer. “It’s by a Hungarian artist who’s mildly well known,” he says. “I can’t remember the name.”


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