Editor's note: Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on December 1, 2007 with permission of the author and the Portland Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Portland Museum of Art:
A Legacy From Maine: The Elizabeth B. Noyce Collection
by Jessica Nicoll
Last fall, the Portland Museum of Art, Maine, experienced an event that will have an incalculable impact on the institution's future. In September, Elizabeth B. Noyce, a long-time benefactor of many Maine organizations including the Museum, died unexpectedly. While mourning the loss of a valued friend and supporter, the Museum staff learned of Ms. Noyce's culminating act of generosity -- the bequest of sixty-four American works of art to the permanent collection. This unprecedented and transforming gift brought to the Museum its first paintings by George Bellows, Alfred Thompson Bricher, Herman Dudley Murphy, Abraham Walkowitz, and Jamie Wyeth, and added masterpieces to the collection by Childe Hassam, Rockwell Kent, Fitz Hugh Lane, John Marin, N. C. Wyeth, and Andrew Wyeth, among others. As with Charles Shipman Payson's 1979 gift of seventeen paintings by Winslow Homer, the Museum's American collection has been augmented and enhanced in a way that is well beyond what the institution could have achieved on its own.
The scale of this bequest is impressive in its own right, but it was only one piece of Mrs. Noyce's plan to endow Maine's art institutions with paintings that record the remarkable history of art in the state. A comparable bequest was made to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, with additional works going to the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath and the Monhegan Museum on Monhegan Island, site of the renowned art colony. Mrs. Noyce had a close relationship with each of these museums and the dispersal of her collection reflects her understanding of their respective missions. It was characteristic of her modesty and her commitment to improving the quality of life in Maine that she chose not to place the collection at one museum as a memorial to herself, but rather to share it among institutions throughout the state so that it would be an accessible and lasting resource for the people of Maine.
These events have excited a great deal of interest within the state. Mrs. Noyce was publicly visible through her extensive and broad-based philanthropy, but otherwise she remained resolutely private. Many people knew that she had an interest in art, but few had an inkling of the scope and quality of the collection she formed. Through these bequests, she has been revealed as an avid and astute collector who assembled an impressive group of more than two hundred artworks expressive of her passions: Maine, the sea, the family, and the comforts of home. Equipped with a clarity of focus and a sophisticated knowledge of art, Mrs. Noyce built a nearly comprehensive collection of great works by artists associated with Maine.
In fact, unknowingly, the public had previously seen many of Mrs. Noyce's paintings when they were shown anonymously as the November Collection in two special exhibitions at the Farnsworth Art Museum and the Portland Museum of Art: An Eye for Maine: Paintings from a Private Collection (1994) and A Brush with Greatness: American Watercolors from the November Collection (1996). The introduction to the catalogue of An Eye for Maine acknowledged:
This collection clearly reflects a spirit that is as unique, full and grand as the art of Maine itself. It is not often true, as is sometimes suggested, that artists are like their paintings; it can be said, however, that collections mirror their owners, at least in terms of a sensibility. An Eye for Maine portrays warmth and vitality, intelligence and discernment, and, most of all, an embracing passion for the art and state of Maine.
The world discovered just how apt that description was when it learned that the force behind this collection was Elizabeth Noyce. The revelation of her achievements as a collector has added a new dimension to the story of a woman who had become legendary in her lifetime for her innovative, Maine-focused philanthropy.
During the past decade, Mrs. Noyce had become increasingly visible through her charitable gifts to many of Maine's major non-profit institutions. The Maine Maritime Academy, Maine Maritime Museum, Maine Medical Center, University of Maine, Farnsworth Art Museum, Portland Museum of Art, Maine Public Broadcasting, and Cumberland County Civic Center were among the beneficiaries of her gifts, totaling between $50 million and $75 million. Her accumulated wealth, estimated at more than $200 million, began with a 1975 divorce settlement from Robert Noyce, co-inventor of the microprocessor and co-founder of Intel. At that time, "Betty," as she was widely known, adopted Maine as her home, finding there a simple way of life that was an antidote to the fast-paced life she had known in California.
In recent years, Mrs. Noyce had begun practicing what she called "catalytic philanthropy" by investing in Maine businesses and communities with the goal of creating jobs and boosting the economy. For example, when Maine Savings Bank failed, Ieaving the state without a bank of its own, she financed Maine Bank & Trust, which now has fourteen branches statewide. When the Nissen Baking Company threatened to move its operations out of state, she purchased it in order to keep jobs in Maine. Portland's depressed downtown business district was the most recent target of her energies; during the past year she purchased and renovated several nearly-vacant buildings, announced plans to create a public market, developed new parking facilities, and persuaded L. L. Bean to open a store on the City's main street.
As with most great philanthropists, Mrs. Noyce directed her giving to the one cause she championed passionately: the state she loved. As she once said, "I only give in my neighborhood, and Maine is my neighborhood." She elaborated upon the idea in a speech delivered at the 1989 New England Conference on Fund-raising and Philanthropy:
To a cause I care about, I'm going to give as much as I can.... Selfishly, I give where my donation will make my immediate environment safer, cleaner, brighterand leave it to others to do as much as they can do in their communities, and that's the way the wider world improves.
Mrs. Noyce's activities as an art collector paralleled the evolution and focus of her philanthropy. She began on a small-scale in the 1970s, acquiring paintings, mostly in watercolor, by artists working in her immediate community. As her interest in Maine developed, she became an avid student of the state's rich and varied art history. Her ambitions as a collector expanded as her understanding of the breadth, beauty and importance of that history deepened. By the time her collection was shown in An Eye for Maine, it included works by most of the major artists who have drawn inspiration from the state's provocative beauty.
The earliest works in the collection date to the arrival in Maine in the nineteenth century of the first landscape painters, including Alvan Fisher, Fitz Hugh Lane and Frederic Church. Mrs. Noyce's personal preferences were in concert with the dominant tradition of realism in Maine. As the collection grew, it encompassed the evolution of that tradition with paintings by Winslow Homer, Robert Henri, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, Edward Hopper, and three generations of the Wyeth family. Her interests extended to more recent developments such as neo-realism and photo-realism, represented by the work of Neil Welliver and Alan Magee.
Throughout the collection's growth Mrs. Noyce maintained a high level of independence in choosing works. She tended to focus on acquiring one piece at a time and knew the history of every work intimately. Over time, she became increasingly selective, seeking out works that would fill in the picture she was composing of Maine's role in American art. Each of her acquisitions balanced her knowledge of art history with a more personal vision. For example, her love of the sea and boating informed her selection of myriad paintings, from Maurice Prendergast's Group of Boats (Watching the Regatta) to William Thon's Working Sloop.
Mrs. Noyce's bequest to the Portland Museum of Art demonstrates that she not only had a defined purpose in building her collection but that she also had a penetrating understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the Museum's holdings. Each work that she left to the Museum was thoughtfully chosen to fill a gap or develop a strength. George Bellows's Matinicus, Abraham Walkowitz's Old Home, Ogunquit, Maine and Ross Turner's Rose Rambler are all major oils by important Maine-associated artists not previously represented in the American painting collection.
One of the Museum's most important holdings is the Hamilton Easter Field Art Foundation Collection of fifty-five works created by modernist artists associated with Field's school in Ogunquit; Mrs. Noyce's gift enables the Museum to present a more complete history of that art colony with works from Charles Woodbury's rival school. And the representation of work by major artists has been expanded. For example, the Museum's early paintings by Rockwell Kent have been complemented by the arrival of The Wreck of the D. T. Sheridan, a work created during the artist's last stay on Monhegan Island.
A gift of this magnitude would be a momentous event in the life of any museum and has endowed the Portland Museum of Art with a generous and poetic scope of American painting. The Museum's curatorial staff is already developing a plan for the integration of Mrs. Noyce's paintings into the permanent collection galleries. Before that occurs, her collection will be featured in a memorial exhibition jointly organized by the Portland Museum of Art and the Farnsworth Art Museum. That exhibition, which will be accompanied by a catalogue of the collection, will open in Portland in September 1997 and will travel to the Farnsworth in 1998.
1 Peter Ralston and Chris Crossman, "Introduction and Acknowledgments," An Eye for Maine: Paintings from a Private Collection (Rockland, ME: Farnsworth Art Museum and The Island Institute, 1994) p. 6.
2 Quoted in John Richardson, "State bids goodbye to 'best friend"', Portland Press Herald (24 September 1996): 8A.
About the author:
Jessica Nicoll is the director and chief curator of the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, MA. Previously, she was chief curator and William and Helen Thon Curator of American Art at the Portland Museum of Art and curator of exhibits at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. She holds an M.A. from the Winterthur Program in early American culture at the University of Delaware and a B.A. in art history and American studies from Smith College
Resource Library editor's note:
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on December 1, 2007, with permission of the author and Portland Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on September 6, 2007. Ms. Nicoll's article pertains to a gift of artwork made to the Portland Museum of Art in 1996.
This text was also published in the February 1997 issue of American Art Review.
Resource Library wishes to
extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen and Kristen Levesque, director
of marketing and public relations at the Portland Museum of Art, for their
help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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