Legacy: A Late Donor Helps an Art Museum Drill Deeper Into a Unique Niche

The Baltimore Museum of Art. Jon Bilous/shutterstock

The Baltimore Museum of Art. Jon Bilous/shutterstock

Recent news out of Baltimore underscores how the tireless work of a regional patron and historical serendipity can position a museum in a mid-tier city as a global center for scholarship.

The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) announced in late July that it received a $5 million gift from the Ruth Carol Fund to support the creation of a center within the museum dedicated to the study of French artist Henri Matisse. The museum’s collection encompasses over 1,200 works by the artist, making it the largest and most comprehensive of its kind found in a public museum. The fund was created by Ruth R. Marder, a Baltimore-based philanthropist whose charitable giving encompassed the arts, education and medical research. Marder passed away in 2011.

A Loyal Local Donor

Born in 1928 in Pittsburgh, Ruth Marder née Rosenberg was the daughter of Henry A. Rosenberg Sr., who had been president of Crown Central Petroleum Co., and Ruth Blaustein Rosenberg. As a philanthropist, Marder provided financial support to Baltimore-area educational institutions like McDaniel College and Towson University, where she had been a member of its board of visitors and fine and performing arts board. Towson University named the studio theater at its Center for the Arts for her in 2002. Other charitable interests included the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Maryland Public Television.

Marder established the Ruth Carol Fund, which has provided support to the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Associated Jewish Charities, the Walters Art Museum, and Baltimore Center Stage. Marder also formed a deep relationship with the BMA, serving on the BMA Council and the former Women’s Council, and providing leadership for the development of the museum’s Textile Fund and the 90th Anniversary Gala in 2004.

“Ruth’s family’s long history of philanthropy, including to the Baltimore Museum of Art, instilled in her a deep commitment to civic duty,” said fund President Donald R. Mering. “The Ruth Carol Fund is proud to continue her work, and to support an institution that she long cared for and saw as an important facet of the cultural fabric of Baltimore.”

Marder’s tireless advocacy and support is one part of the equation, here. But how did the Baltimore Museum of Art come to possess so much of Matisse’s work in the first place?

This “peculiar twist in history,” to quote the New York Times’ Tess Thackara, begins over a century ago, when two Baltimore-based sisters, Claribel and Etta Cone, encountered Matisse’s work in Paris. Over the course of the early 20th century, the pair acquired some 500 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints by the modern art pioneer. Etta passed away in 1949, and her bequest stipulated that the Baltimore Museum of Art receive a portion of the collection. The museum has since acquired more than 700 additional pieces of Matisse’s work.

“An Epicenter of Scholarship”

The new 3,500-square-foot facility, to be called the Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies, is slated to open in 2021, and will serve as “the epicenter of scholarship” about Matisse, according to BMA director Christopher Bedford. The gift from the Ruth Carol Fund supports the design and construction of the space and establishes an endowment for the Marder Center’s ongoing operations.

The Ruth Carol Fund gift equals the $5 million the BMA received in 2007 from an anonymous donor to support the endowment. The largest gift in the museum’s history remains a 2017 $10 million commitment from philanthropist Dorothy McIlvain Scott to endow a wing in American furniture and decorative arts.

Add it all up, and the gift is a textbook example of a loyal regional funder digging deep to propel a museum in a mid-tier city to the world stage. “Having a dedicated space to research the collection as well as the funds for more Matisse exhibitions, publications and programs will redouble the BMA’s international reputation,” said Bedford. “It’s rather extraordinary,” he added, “to have this in a city like Baltimore and not in France.”

In related news, check our take on Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown’s $3.5 million gift to the BMA to endow the position of chief curator.