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The Late Donald Marron & Me: An Affable Collector with a Keen Eye for Contemporary Keepers

Early in my career, when I was learning art journalism under the tutelage of Elizabeth (“Betsy”) Baker, the deeply knowledgeable editor of Art in America magazine, I had two contrasting contacts with Donald Marron, the much admired art connoisseur, philanthropist and financial-markets professional, who died on Friday at age 85.

Both of those experiences left me impressed with Marron’s energy, empathy and acuity, even though I was on the hot seat during our second encounter.

The first time I met Don, I had been invited by Betsy to tag along with her for a chance to eyeball the art on the walls of PaineWebber—a collection that he was directly instrumental in acquiring for the investment firm of which he was CEO. As we headed back to our less well appointed office, Baker expressed to me her admiration for the discernment and adventurousness of what we had just seen—a cut above most corporate art collections.

That sentiment was echoed in 2002 by Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, when it was announced that UBS PaineWebber had “promised MoMA 37 [later upped to 44] works from its vast collection of postwar art that includes seminal paintings, drawings and sculpture by masters like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Lucian Freud and Jasper Johns.” (PaineWebber was sold to Swiss bank UBS in 2000. The donated works were drawn from the former PaineWebber Collection.)

At the time of the gift announcement, Lowry (as quoted in the NY Times) described Marron as “quite courageous. It’s not the kind of safe collection most corporations build.” According to MoMA’s press release for its 2005 UBS exhibition, “All of the donated works were acquired by the company between 1978 and 2000, and many were purchased shortly after their creation.”

Jasper Johns, “Untitled,” 1990, watercolor on paper
Given to MoMA by UBS

Unfortunately, some of the works in MoMA’s show were still privately owned by UBS, not donated to the museum. My critical analysis of this—that UBS might turn around and sell those works, with their value enhanced by MoMA’s prestigious imprimatur—turned out, regrettably, to be on the money.

The second time I met Marron, the circumstances were less friendly: He had been given the task of calling me on the carpet for displeasing two fellow Museum of Modern Art trustees—Walter Thayer and John Hay Whitney. In an article I had written for Art in America—“Reflections on a Glass Tower”—I had critically analyzed MoMA’s plans for its 1984 Cesar Pelli-designed expansion. I was summarily summoned to meet Marron in his office to discuss what I’d written.

What most riled Marron’s two board co-members was that I had approvingly noted that no one from Whitney Communications (the company that then published Art in America) had tried to influence my story, notwithstanding Thayer’s and Whitney’s positions as both WhitCom officials and MoMA board members. I had inserted that brief disclaimer to preempt possible charges of journalistic conflict-of-interest. But they regarded it as a personal embarrassment, revealing to their museum colleagues their failure to intervene in averting criticism from their own publication.

After my jaw dropped, I wondered whether I was expected to make some sort of retraction or apology. Instead, I explained to Marron the reason for what I had written, and stood by it. After hearing me out, he didn’t press the issue. He didn’t seem any more comfortable being the transmitter of his colleagues’ displeasure than I was hearing about it.

That was the first of several milestones (or millstones) in my career, when something I wrote that was intended as praise had unintended negative consequences. Soon after, I departed (of my own accord) for a job at ARTnews.

But enough of me: In subsequent years, I occasionally ran into Marron at art auctions, most notably at the May 2012 sale at Sotheby’s of Munch‘s “The Scream” (which was reportedly bought by another Museum of Modern Art trustee, Leon Black, and was later displayed at MoMA).

Don was still pursuing the new when I last caught sight of him at the May 2017 Frieze Art Fair, New York, where this pensive portrait in charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper caught his (and also my) eye:

Toyin Ojih Odutola, “Compound Leaf,” 2017, shown at Frieze by Jack Shainman Gallery
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Don missed out on the Odutola: It had already been sold, he was told. But he did peruse some digital images of other works. That’s the lanky Marron on the right, towering (as usual) over all around him:

Donald Marron at Frieze Art Fair, New York, May 2017
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

A little later, I caught him at another booth, gazing intently at an Anselm Kiefer:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The appreciation of Marron published by MoMA yesterday in the NY Times‘ Classified Obits Section provided more details about his importance to the museum:

Don joined MoMA’s Board of Trustees in 1975 and was one of the longest serving and most respected [emphasis added] members of the Board. He served as President of the Board from 1985 to 1991….He donated more than 500 works of art to the collection….He also facilitated the donation of 50 works from the UBS collection, which is the collection he formed as the CEO of PaineWebber from 1980-2000….The Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium is a living testimony to his generosity.

MoMA’s Marron Atrium with Haegue Yang’s “Handles”—a work commissioned for performances at the expanded museum’s October reopening
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Marron cared about culture and museums for all the right reasons. For him it was about the love of art—not social prestige, self-aggrandizement or personal gain. As it did for the late David Rockefeller, MoMA should consider honoring Marron with a display that highlights the best of his abundant benefactions.

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