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Artful Altruism

Kate Evans | December 21, 2016 | Lifestyle Story Culture

In the cool book-lined conference room of the San Jose Museum of Art, Susan Krane, its executive director, discusses J. Michael Bewley’s recent gift of 12 exceptional contemporary art pieces. When asked what this donation means to the museum, she sits back in her chair. “Let me start with what Mike means to the museum,” she says.

“He is one of the most knowledgeable, independent-thinking members of the board,” she thoughtfully continues, describing his value to the acquisitions committee and his strong commitment to the institution in general. Krane also admires his “unparalleled independence” in collecting. “This is not a [collection] that any art consultant would put together,” she says. “He is not afraid of works that are aggressive visually.” Krane is quick to note that Bewley values subtlety too—citing the delicate Lesley Dill wedding dress piece, “Clothe My Naked Body, Poem Wedding Dress,” created from ink, thread and paper.

The dozen donated works—which will be displayed as part of various upcoming museum exhibitions—tackle socially significant topics, from race and immigration to sexual discrimination and war. Among the most notable works included in Bewley’s gift is Five Times for Harvey, Robert Arneson’s series of five mixed media portraits of the late LGBT activist and San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk. Bewley purchased the set from the back room of a gallery that felt it was too emotionally charged to display more prominently. Another is Luis Cruz Azaceta’s “The Scream,” a nightmarish half of a face with spikes coming out of the side. It’s a visual representation of the artist’s experience as a Cuban immigrant—the isolation and pain he felt leaving his homeland. Enrique Chagoya’s “Powerful Hand” is an oil-on-steel work with two dismembered hands, one spewing oil and one rising up from a sea of blood, a commentary on the cost of greed.

Bewley began collecting in the mid-1980s, and discovered that he was drawn to art that portrayed a “different kind of beauty,” he says. He was emotionally and academically attracted to works that dealt with issues of social justice and equality, that “tell you about the artist and our world, that draw something out of you.” As he continues to collect, he is deliberate in his choices and follows an artist for some time, looking for signs of continuing maturity and growth in his or her work. Emotion and passion then lead him to the perfect piece, which is why he equates the acquisition process to a long love affair.

According to Bewley, his gift to SJMA is composed of “pieces that don’t allow you to sit there calmly. You have to think about them. When people spend time with them, when they’re not attacked by them, they end up liking them.” The assemblage was previously on display at his downtown San Jose law practice. After retiring and closing his office last year, he found he missed interacting with his art on a daily basis, and there wasn’t space for these particular works at his carefully arranged home gallery. He felt strongly that that the works need “to be seen by the public and engaged with by a larger audience,” he says. His longstanding involvement with the SJMA made it the natural beneficiary; although he likens it to giving away his children, he understands the importance of his gift to the institution and the community.

Almost 90 percent of the SJMA’s collection comes from private donors, and the museum is increasing its donor base every year by thinking creatively and leveraging existing relationships. Gifts such as Bewley’s demonstrate to the community the value of large-scale philanthropy. It’s a chance to model engagement and establish, as Krane puts it, “generosity that lasts in perpetuity.”

The museum’s executive director adds: “This is not a faceless institution; it reflects all of the people who have built it over the decades. These pieces of art are not inanimate objects, but part of a legacy that is being created for future generations.” Now in its 47th year, the SJMA appears to be coming of age, increasing its profile in the community. And perhaps more than ever, with the addition of Bewley’s gift, the museum is a space that generates and propels crucial conversations. “We see wonderful reactions [to art] as people disagree, talk back and forth, exhibit empathy,” says Krane. “This is a powerful way to communicate.” 110 S. Market St., 408.271.6840


Originally published in the November issue of
Silicon Valley

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