CLEVELAND, Ohio — To live in Cleveland is to benefit from generations of generosity in cultural philanthropy.
It’s a point of local pride, for instance, that in the early and middle decades of the 20th century, industrial magnates such as John Long Severance and Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. donated piles of money to strengthen institutions including the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Orchestra.
But such largesse is not just an old story. It’s one that lives today in the art museum’s current major exhibit, “Impressionism to Modernism: The Keithley Collection.’’
The show, which opened in September and remains on view through Sunday, January 8, explores an art collection with an estimated value of more than $100 million that was donated to the museum in 2020 by Shaker Heights collectors Joseph P. Keithley and his wife, Nancy F. Keithley.
If you haven’t seen the exhibition, there’s still plenty of time to do so during the holiday season.
Filled with everything from colorful late 19th-century French post-Impressionist paintings to modern and contemporary Japanese ceramics, the show sends a message that Cleveland, which now ranks 54th among American cities in population, is still a place where industrial fortunes can be made, and where philanthropy is still a major civic strength.
Of course, big donations to local institutions aren’t limited to the cultural sector, or to local donors. In 2019, the Cleveland Clinic received $261 million triggered by the sale of Lord Corp., based in the Raleigh, N.C. suburb of Cary, to Parker Hannifin Corp., based in Mayfield Heights. The donation was the largest in the Clinic’s history.
A landmark gift
As for the Keithley collection, the museum’s website describes it as, “the most significant gift since the bequest of Leonard C. Hanna Jr. in 1958.’'
Heather Lemonedes Brown, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator, said the museum’s statement was meant to refer to the value of artworks bequeathed in 1958 by Hanna, but she said the museum has never tallied their monetary value.
It’s also true that the Keithley donation is the single biggest gift in dollar value received by the museum since Hanna’s financial bequest of $34 million, also made in 1958, and now worth $354 million in 2022 dollars.
However it is calculated, the Keithley donation is among the biggest received by the museum, or any local cultural institution, in decades.
The show includes 112 donated works of art, plus nine promised gifts, and another 13 works provided on loan. Artists represented in the Keithley gift include Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Camille Pissarro, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, Andrew Wyeth, John Marin, Milton Avery, and Joan Mitchell.
Their works have substantially enriched the museum’s ability to tell the story of early modern art in Europe and America. For example, the gift includes Braque’s brilliantly colorful 1906 painting of a harbor at l’Estaque, northwest of Marseilles on the French Riviera.
Brushed in vivid, primary and secondary hues, the painting is now the most powerful example in the museum’s collection of the short-lived Fauvist movement, which emphasized the use of intense, non-natural colors. (The movement’s name means wild beasts in French.) For Braque, his Fauve period was a critical stepping stone to the Cubist style he would soon develop in a collaborative rivalry with Picasso.
Despite the raw power of the Braque, much of the Keithleys’ collection is characterized by a gentle, dreamlike beauty. That spirit especially permeates works by the Nabis, a group of late 19th-century French painters, including Denis, Bonnard, and Vuillard, who used flat, interlocking shapes and muted tones to depict intimate domestic and religious scenes.
Typical of this mood of reverie is “Moonlight at the Priory,’’ 1894, by Denis, a luminous nighttime scene of a woman hanging sheets on a courtyard laundry line, following the ancient belief that the full moon would bleach the fabric, according to a label in the exhibition.
Brown said it was significant that the Keithleys decided to part with such artworks during their lifetime, calling it a personal sacrifice.
“These were works of art they lived with every day,’’ she said. (At the Keithleys’ request, the museum provided them with life-size, framed photographic reproductions of the donated artworks to fill the spaces they once occupied in their home.)
The Keithleys found themselves in a position to buy museum-quality artworks starting in 1999 and 2000, after Joseph, who goes by Joe, sold some of his shares in Solon-based Keithley Instruments, Inc.
Founded by his father, Joseph F. Keithley, and incorporated in 1955, the company specializes in electronic testing and measurement devices. Joe Keithley, trained as an engineer, led the firm from 1993 to 2010. In the fall of 2010, Keithley Instruments was acquired by Washington, D.C.-based Danaher Corporation in an all-cash transaction.
Now, the Keithley collection is available for everyone to enjoy. Admission to the museum’s exhibition starts at $15 for adult non-members. But when the show is over, the Keithley treasures will filter into regular museum galleries where they’ll be visible for free, like everything else in the permanent collection.
Stewarding a relationship
When the museum announced the Keithley donation in 2020, the collectors said they were making the gift because they have no children and because they believe in the power of philanthropy.
As for the museum, the Keithley gift shows that the institution has been able to maintain strong relationships with donors even during the sometimes turbulent 15 years between 1999 and 2014 when it was led by three directors, with four yearlong intervals under interim directors.
Despite the turmoil, the museum completed a $320 million expansion and renovation in late 2013. Most of the money for the big project came from private donations, the largest of which was $22.5 million from the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation.
Meanwhile, curators and directors kept things moving quietly with the Keithleys before and after the museum reattained stable leadership in 2014 with the appointment of William Griswold, the current director.
“There was always a sense of connection [with the Keithleys] which outweighed any sense of change’' at the museum, Brown said.
No quid pro quo
During a recent stroll through their exhibition at the museum with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, the Keithleys described their collection as the outcome of a productive and enjoyable two-way relationship with the institution.
It was one in which they found constant guidance and encouragement, plus entrée to leading art dealers around the world, which the museum provided without stating a quid pro quo.
“People have asked us how did you happen to buy what you buy?’’ Joe said. “It’s really what gets put in front of you unless you are just dogged about calling X number of dealers every three months.”
When asked whether curators or directors ever asked whether the Keithleys would donate all or part of their collection, Nancy Keithley was emphatic.
“Those words were never uttered,’’ she said.
But Joe clarified that he and Nancy had always made it clear that they were planning major future donations to institutions including the Cleveland museum.
In fact, he said, as their collecting grew more serious in the early 2000s, they established a limited liability corporation to own their growing collection.
The LLC specified that after the death of the surviving spouse, the collection would be shared among the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the university art museums at Cornell and the University of Michigan.
The Keithleys’ continue to support the University of Michigan Art Museum today by funding purchases of modern and contemporary Japanese ceramics, a particular enthusiasm for Joe.
“He’s just really generous and really thoughtful and so discerning,’' said Christina Olsen, the museum’s director.
Ultimately, though, the Keithleys decided to lavish most of their generosity on the big museum in their home city because of the attention and help they received. Nancy also aided the museum by serving as a museum trustee. She chaired committees involved in art acquisitions from 2006 to 2011, sharpening her eye along the way.
“Our relationship was very strong with the Cleveland museum,’’ Joe said.
A love affair with art
The Keithleys said they have always loved art. In an interview published in the catalog of the exhibition of their collection, Nancy, a native of Lawrence, Massachusetts, said her first art purchase was a laminated poster of an Henri Matisse painting she hung in her dorm room at Northeastern University in Boston.
“I treasured that,’’ she said. “My room was quite small, but it gave me a lift every time I looked at it.”
Joe said that he always considered himself a visual thinker, an aptitude fortified by his exploration of photography during his teen years.
It was a pursuit encouraged by his father, who as a graduate student in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1930s worked on developing stroboscopic photography with Harold Edgerton, later famous for his stop-action images of milk droplets or a bullet flying through an apple.
The Keithleys met in Michigan in the early 1970s when Joe was earning a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. They began collecting art in the 1980s, gradually filling their home on Fairhill Road in the Belgian Village residential community.
After focusing at first on acquiring works by Cleveland artists such as Joseph O’Sickey, they raised their ambitions in the late 1990s, when they had the financial means. In 2003, the Keithleys moved to a larger house in Shaker Heights, in part because they needed more wall space.
Throughout the formation of their collection, the Keithleys said they always asked museum curators and directors whether what they were buying was up to museum standards. But while their collection shows the impact of insights and suggestions provided by the museum, it is also very much the product of the Keithleys’ interests and tastes.
Observing the growth of their collection from afar, Olsen, the director of the University of Michigan Art Museum, said of the Keithleys, “they have an aesthetic sensibility, and they follow it wherever it takes them.’’
The exhibition catalog emphasizes the Keithleys’ passion for rich color, exemplified by the Braque painting of l’Estaque, and “The Pink Cloud,’’ an 1896 painting in the Pointillist style by Henri Edmond-Cross, who used thousands of tiny dabs of blue, pink, orange, green, and pale violet to depict a landscape with the sun setting over the sea.
“It’s joyous,’’ Joe said of the Edmond-Cross, adding that the painting has served as a reminder during gray Cleveland winters that “we can have the sun, we can have green grass again.’’
Color is also evident as a major theme in a roomful of paintings and lithographs by Joan Mitchell, (1925-1992), an American artist, who created brushy abstractions based on emotions aroused by landscapes in France and suburban Westchester, New York.
But other threads are visible in the collection. For example, a 1793 pen-and-ink drawing of a canal scene in Delft, the Netherlands, by Johannes Huibert Prins, depicts with near photographic clarity a woman dipping a bucket in the canal to gather water for housecleaning, while standing next to a church. Joe said the work appeals to his interest in precision and accuracy, an outgrowth of his training as an engineer.
The same is true of Joe’s interest in a precisely-formed porcelain box made in 2006 by Japanese artist Takegoshi Jun, glazed with enamel decorations depicting crested ibises in brilliant tones of turquoise.
“The precision with this is just something else,’’ Joe said. “From a technical standpoint, it’s a thrill.”
Monochromatic or nearly monochromatic works in the collection embody the Keithleys’ interest in artworks that portray moments of stillness in visually austere, environments.
Those qualities are evident in “End of Olsons,’’ 1969, by American realist Andrew Wyeth, a stark image of the roof of a seaside farmhouse in Maine, and in a 1906 painting by the early 20th-century Danish realist Vilhelm Hammershøi that focuses on pale sunlight pouring through windows in a barely furnished room.
There are also moments in the show that lean toward earthy realism, such as a sizable 1882 painting by the French Impressionist, Gustave Caillebotte, depicting a storefront window in Paris filled with chickens, game birds, and hares.
Nancy said the Swiss art dealer who sold the picture to her and Joe suggested that it belonged in a museum, not in their collection. Nancy took that as a challenge and bought it anyway. And now, it is in a museum.
To recognize the impact of the Keithley gifts, the museum featured a photo of the couple on a wall in the first room of their exhibition that’s also filled with photos of major donors of the past, including Hanna and Severance.
“Honestly I don’t think of us in the same league,’’ Joe said while gazing at the wall. But he said he and Nancy very much wanted to emulate Cleveland’s long history of cultural philanthropy with their donation.
“What we wanted to do was to reaffirm the museum and reaffirm the city and egg on a few others, who might not give works to museums, to do so,’’ Joe said. “It’s a good thing to do. You’re not going to take it with you.”