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Imagining the Past, Investing in the Future: Historical novelist James A. Michener's legacy creates new possibilities for artists and writers



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James A. Michener, Art Collector

With the success of his novels, Michener experienced great financial success as well. But he never forgot his humble beginnings and decided that the best way to use his money was to invest it in the things he believed in.

James and Mari Michener tour the University Art Museum, circa 1970
James and Mari Michener tour the Michener Collection at the University Art Museum, circa 1970.

“My wife and I decided early on that since we made our living in the arts we would plow back all our earnings to the arts and education and to museums and universities,” he said. “Whenever we got a few bucks ahead at the end of the year, we spent it on art. And we wanted art to represent what was being done during my lifetime - we were rather strict on that. That figures from 1907 through abstract expressionism and the flowering of New York art” in the 1950s and ’60s.

Michener's love of the arts, and in particular painting, started when he was just a boy. An avid stamp collector, Michener not only developed his characteristic taste for travel, but he also learned an appreciation for art itself, as he studied different artistic representations, in miniature, from around the world.

He felt the almost obsessive act of collecting balanced out an inner need.

“People who collect, whether stamps or sea shells or rare books or works of great art, are doing so in response to some inner deficiency,” he said. “But I suspect that this is also true of people who write operas, string quartets, poems, or novels. If we were all perfectly adjusted, we would not need to engage in such bizarre occupations.”

So stamp collecting led to the collecting of torn-out pictures of paintings from magazines and to the collecting of postcards featuring works of art. When he was a boy Michener wrote to American artist Willard Metcalf asking if the painter had a color copy of a black-and-white Metcalf print he had seen in a magazine. Metcalf sent Michener a color card, and the Michener art collection began. As Michener began to make money from his books, the card and print collecting gave way to the collecting of valuable works of art.

Along with his third wife, Mari, Michener collected hundreds of paintings, and by the end of his life he had given them all away. The Micheners' donations began in 1959 when James placed his collection of 6,000 Japanese prints at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. And that was just the beginning.

“From the day I acquired my first painting,” Michener said, “I have intended that the collection be handed over ultimately to some public museum where others might learn as much from it as I did.”

From the day I acquired my first painting, I have intended that the collection be handed over ultimately to some public museum where others might learn as much from it as I did.

The Micheners collected very carefully. In fact, even before he bought his first painting for the collection, Michener said he “set aside a three-month period during which [he] read practically everything written on contemporary American painting, cross indexed 163 major books, essays and catalogs, and drew up a chart summarizing the opinions of critics, museum people, the general public and others.” It was a methodical passion.

And it was matched by his passion for giving. He was ultimately recognized by the White House Arts Program for his financial assistance to artists, assistance that is well-represented in his gift of art to The University of Texas at Austin.

The Michener Collection at The University of Texas at Austin

Michener first fell in love with American painting while living in New York City in the 1930s. During his lunch hour, he would drift to the Whitney Museum of American Art and pore through its rotating collections. He had once thought he would collect Italian art, but the paintings he discovered at the Whitney staggered him, and he set about creating an art collection that would trace American painting through the 20th century. This collection found its home at The University of Texas at Austin in 1968.

Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, curator of American and Contemporary Art at the university's Blanton Museum of Art, points out that the collection is not just significant, it is unique. The thoroughness with which Michener approached collecting makes the artworks a great teaching collection. The paintings can be used to illustrate each of the major figures and movements of 20th century painting. It includes everyone from Thomas Hart Benton to Hans Hoffman to Brice Marden, and to amble through it is to tour most of the stylistic and historical trends that compose the century.

As such, the collection is used by instructors and students of all levels. Docents from the Blanton work with elementary school teachers, who then bring classes of young students back to see them firsthand. Classes from Austin Community College, as well as university classes ranging from freshman writing classes to graduate art history classes, regularly use the collection.

Thomas Hart Benton’s “Romance” is one of more than 350 American paintings in the Michener Collection
Thomas Hart Benton’s “Romance,” 1930/31, is one of more than 350 American paintings in the Michener Collection.

Carlozzi notes that the Michener Collection is also particularly vibrant. She attributes this largely to the fact that it was built by an artist. Michener himself expresses this in his essay “The Collector: An Informal Memoir,” which prefaces the 1977 publication of The James A. Michener Collection: Twentieth Century American Painting catalog.

“This collection was formed by a professional writer who felt that he ought to know what artists living in America during his lifetime were doing,” he said. “Specifically, he wanted to see how they handled the kinds of artistic problems he faced.”

Carlozzi points out that although Michener was methodical in his approach to collecting, he was not afraid to take risks. He met and got to know artists, and he commissioned work from those whom he admired. He had a good eye. Repeatedly, artists whom Michener discovered early in their careers later became pivotal figures in 20th-century art.

Although Michener himself stopped collecting in 1965, he made funds available to continue selecting art for the collection. While Michener was still alive, he provided a consultative voice in this process. Since his death, the collection has continued to grow. New work was added as recently as last spring, and in keeping with Michener’s intention that the collection be dynamic, the new work reflects what is happening in contemporary American painting.

To ensure that the work would have a home, James and Mari Michener each gave $5 million toward the construction of a new building for the Blanton Museum. Their gifts gave a concrete start to the planning of the new structure slated for completion in 2005. The decision to name one of the buildings in their honor acknowledges the importance of that gift to the arts at the university.

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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