Large Gifts Reflect And Define Museum's Identity

Dec 13, 2018

"Invasion: Bettendorf, Iowa" by Steuart Pittman, from the Laura and John Fraser Collection at RAM.
Credit SteuartPittman.com

People donate art to museums from time to time. But a really large donation – a whole collection – can help define a museum's very identity. 

Laura and John Fraser, both artists, have collected contemporary art together for decades. Over the years, they amassed a large set of pieces rich - if that's the right word for so subtle a collection – in abstract images and shapes, with the occasional bit of whimsy.

Recently, they downsized to a new residence, and needed to find a home for the art. John Fraser said the couple were longtime friends of the Rockford Art Museum or RAM.

"We felt that they would be a wonderful location to place this work that we cherished for so long," he said. "A number of things had to be given to them relative to what's already in their collection, and things we gave them before, and in relation to the type of work they have in their collection, mostly regional artists that we supported as well."

Laura Fraser said another big reason for giving to RAM is that it is a teaching museum.

"They have kids come in. People are learning," she said. "We're exposing the work that we love and cherish to other people, an expanded world. There's nothing better than that."

The collection comprises 122 contemporary paintings, prints, drawings, mixed media, sculpture and more by 57 artists from around the world, including several local and regional artists. 

Laura and John Fraser
Credit Guy Stephens

RAM Executive Director Aimee Floto said receipt of such a large, curated and well-rounded collection is an incredible gift, and not to be taken lightly.

"It's a vote of confidence for us," she said, "in terms of knowing that we can take care of and properly store a collection of that value and of that size. And then, also an understanding and a trust that we care for it and we will share it with the public."

Floto said there are other benefits to the institution.

"It also puts us on the map in terms of other museums respecting us," she said. "For us to be known. And then it gives us an opportunity to form great partnerships."

Such partnerships include lending pieces to each other for exhibitions.

In some ways, the recent donation owes something to another, made a couple of decades ago. Chicago collectors Francis and June Spiezer gave 200 pieces to RAM by contemporary local artists. It included Ed Pashke of Chicago Imagists, who is known for a striking mix of surrealist and expressionist influences in bright, colorful – even extravagant -- pieces. 

"Red Sweeney" by Ed Paschke, from the Francis and June Speizer Collection at RAM
Credit RAM

Museum curator Carrie Johnson said RAM was always known for its focus on contemporary and regional art. But, she said, the Spiezer gift put the museum on another level. 

Even though the Spiezers knew and liked Rockford, Johnson said the gift was something of a coup. But being a smaller museum, versus a large Chicago one, actually helped.

"We're not an overwhelming museum like the Art Institute," she said, "which is a wonderful institution, but they've got so many pieces in their permanent collection that the Spiezers were going, 'Is our work ever going to get seen?' And they knew putting it into Rockford's hands that we were really going to utilize that collection."

And, Johnson said, that's just what the Museum has been doing. And not just in shows dedicated to the Spiezer Collection.

"We're showing their pieces from that collection almost constantly in our permanent collection shows," she said. "So we'll take different pieces from that collection and use it with other parts of that permanent collection."

Johnson said the Fraser donation adds to the museum's resources, as well as its reputation. She expects to use it to craft new exhibitions, too. And, Johnson said, it also turned her on to artists she didn't know - ones she can explore further, for future shows and acquisitions.