Accidental Collectors: Robert and Jane Meyerhoff’s Modernism Collection

In 1987, Jane and Robert Meyerhoff announced their pledge to donate their art collection to the National Gallery of Art, including many of the works currently on view in the de Young’s special exhibition Modernism from National Gallery of Art.  But before they were given to the nation, these works first made up a personal collection that the couple had built and lived with for many years.

The story of how this collection developed is one of early enthusiasm, happy accidents, and eventually, a deeply shared commitment to modern art.

Jane Meyerhoff (née Bernstein) was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland and married the real-estate developer Robert Meyerhoff in 1945. Robert was also a civil engineer and a World War II veteran who founded Hendersen-Webb, a construction and property management company.

The couple’s love of art began when Jane’s father, Harry A. Bernstein, married the Baltimore artist Ruth Kuff in 1947. Inspired by Ruth, Jane and Robert gradually found themselves traveling to museums and galleries all over the world.

Their travels were interrupted in 1955 when Jane contracted polio. While recuperating, she began a course in art appreciation under the direction of the noted art historian Bates Lowry from the University of California, Riverside. “Mr. Lowry helped me to see while I was looking,” Jane recalled.

In 1957 Jane established a memorial collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art in her father’s name. Questioned years later about the couple’s early purchase of Hans Hofmann’s painting Autumn Gold, she explained how it came into their collection:

“I had been looking with Mrs. Breeskin to make selections for a collection to honor my father at the Baltimore Museum. We all loved Hofmann’s Autumn Gold, but it would have taken half the memorial money. I took Bob back to see it later. He decided to have his [real estate] company buy it. The Hofmann was borrowed for the [1960] Venice Biennale and was mistakenly returned not to Bob’s office but to our house. We hung it, forcing out a lot of other things we had. Bob was prescient and bought the painting from his firm five years later. He had decided he wanted to own it himself. Hofmann was about the only modern artist Bob had seen at this time, and I didn’t know much more myself.”

And so, through a combination of instinct, vicissitude, and tenacity, a collection began, with Jane as the driving force and Robert as an increasingly equal partner.

The collection continued to grow as the Meyerhoffs' taste in art developed. They built galleries in their home, and became close friend with many of the artists represented in their collection, even naming some of their racehorses after artist friends or works of art.

In addition to their arts-related philanthropy , the Meyerhoffs are also known for supporting education, including the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County. Since 1988 this program has funded education in the STEM fields, giving generations of diverse students the opportunity to advance their education and careers.

Jane Meyerhoff passed away in the fall of 2004 in her home city of Baltimore, but her legacy and passion can be experienced through the magnificent art collection that she helped to create.

Seeing Robert Meyerhoff in person at the opening of the exhibition at the de Young, one could feel his love and excitement. As he sat with a group intently listening to Harry Cooper, curator and head of modern art at the National Gallery of Art, his passion for the artwork was palpable and it encouraged those in his presence to fall in love with the collection he and Jane worked for nearly 50 years to build. Experience the Meyerhoff’s dedication to the arts, and view their collection for yourself at Modernism from the National Gallery of Art on view through October 12.

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