By Susan J. Rawles
Placemaking is the strategy a community employs to create public spaces that capitalize on local talents and available resources. Patronage is the tradition private agents practice using similar resources to achieve often visionary ends. Both approaches impart farsighted hopes whose long tenure can take decades to realize. Yet it is the dreams of public place makers and private patrons that drive change. In 1919 these two philanthropic forces came together when Judge John Barton Payne (1855–1935) (Fig. 1) donated fifty-one works of art to the Commonwealth of Virginia and subsequently offered a $100,000 matching grant to form the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Fig. 2), the first state-run art museum in the United States. VMFA is pleased to celebrate the century of citizen philanthropists who have since transformed Payne’s nascent ideal into a world-class museum with an exhibition of selected works at the Winter Antiques Show.
Born at the trading post of Pruntytown, Virginia (now West Virginia), Payne was home-schooled until age fifteen. In 1870, he moved to the town of Warrenton and took a job with a general store. Three years later, a dying economy returned Payne to Pruntytown on family business. Taking a short-term position in the county clerk’s office, the eighteen-year-old was introduced to William Blackstone’s Commentaries, the definitive eighteenth-century treatise on English common law. Subsequent decades witnessed his growing reputation as a successful businessman, lawyer, public servant, and philanthropist. Decorated by nineteen foreign powers for his work as president of the Red Cross, Payne boasted “the highest salary in the world—personal satisfaction.”  Following his death in 1935, a New York Times editorial made particular note of how in “giving himself wholly to public affairs and . . . next to doing justly, loving mercy,” he embodied “the finest type of citizenship.” 
Payne’s original gift, and his subsequent bequest of more than three hundred additional works, provides a lens on his era. On one hand, Payne’s collection invokes his love of the Old Dominion. It includes a contemporary image of the heroic Pocahontas (Fig. 3), and a Renaissance-inspired Virginia Madonna (Fig. 4). Like the structure that ultimately housed it, however, it also speaks to the Colonial Revival. With its roots in the founding decades of the United States, the Colonial Revival peaked in the late nineteenth century with the nation’s centennial and the rise of the United States as a global power. Wed to the country’s economic and political successes was the challenge of uniting the disparate people flocking to its shores and fueling its progress. In response, an Americanization movement emerged. Front-page coverage of a New York “Americanization dinner” featured Payne’s colleague, Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane, proposing to “teach the American what Americanism is and . . . what Americanism is not,” adding, “Americanization . . . must bring every American to a realization of his melting-pot duty . . . all experience, skill, idealism and ambition must find more common denominators.” 
As Americanization provided theoretical control over the diversifying impact of demographic expansion, the Colonial Revival provided a cultural one. Through visual and material means, it invoked a selectively crafted American history whose packaged version of seminal events, founding ideals, and promised dreams were fashioned to establish a shared vision of the nation’s past. This effort to subvert differences in forging a common identity necessarily denied alternative identities and histories. The imbalance came to a head in 1919, in the wake of the Great War, a year fraught with strikes and riots. It was not a promising year for Payne either, who, despite the honor of being appointed chairman of the U.S. Shipping Board, suffered the death of his wife, the artist Jennie Byrd Bryan Payne (Fig. 5). To these challenges Payne responded with his cultural call-to-arms. A passionate collector, Payne believed in the power of art to mediate human differences and unite estranged peoples, challenging Governor John Garland Pollard (1871–1937) (Fig. 6) to forge a public-private partnership that continues to define the operations of VMFA.
Subsequent VMFA patrons have incrementally transformed the museum into an outstanding repository of internationally acclaimed works of art. Like Payne, each has brought a unique perspective and history to bear on the museum’s evolving narrative, providing a compelling reminder of the many walks of life from which philanthropy comes.
The most long-standing patronage comes from the Mellon family. Paul Mellon joined VMFA’s board of trustees in 1938, initiating a seventy-five-year relationship in collaboration with his wife, Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon, and his sister Ailsa Mellon Bruce. Throughout the era, the Mellons served as institutional advocates, shaping the museum through their leadership, while contributing more than 1,800 works of art (Fig. 7) and significant bricks and mortar.
Like Payne, the Mellons inspired other significant collectors to make similarly transformative gifts. In 1947, VMFA was the recipient of a five-hundred-piece collection of Russian decorative arts in memory of Lillian Thomas Pratt (1876–1947). Moving west in the wake of a railroad boom whose western terminus was in Tacoma, Washington, the Pennsylvania-born Thomas settled with her mother in the “City of Destiny.” By 1900, she was residing in a local boardinghouse and working as a stenographer at a flour mill. Thomas met and married her second husband, the Virginia-born John Lee Pratt, in 1917, the same year as the Russian Revolution and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. Thereafter, Lillian Pratt tethered her passion for collecting to the romance of that lost empire, eventually creating the largest assemblage of Fabergé works outside of Russia (Fig. 8).
The dramatic events of Russia’s history affected more than one patron of VMFA. Between 1881 and 1924, more than two million Jews fled the programs of the Russian Empire to settle in the United States. Among them was Julius Berul Shklovsky Lewis, father of Sydney Lewis who attended Washington and Lee University and Harvard Business School before taking up a position in his parents’ encyclopedia sales firm. Wed in 1942, Sydney Lewis and Frances Aaronson assembled a collection of contemporary works while nurturing the careers of numerous artists. In 1969, the Lewises made their first gift to VMFA, a set of lithographs by their friend, Andy Warhol. A few years later, they established a fund for Art Nouveau. Joining with Paul Mellon in underwriting the museum’s 1985 expansion, the couple went on to shape its future, contributing more than 1,500 works, including their famed collections of fin-de-siècle decorative art (Fig. 9) and modern and contemporary painting.
Philanthropy is commonly assumed to be the charge of a well-heeled elite. It is also the achievement of self-made individuals whose spirit of giving back is born of lifelong diligence. Virginia-born J. Harwood Cochrane (1912–2016) was fifteen when he began delivering milk for a local farmer. Over time, he converted his one-horse wagon into a truck he drove overnight for on-time deliveries. More trucks followed until, ultimately, Overnight Trucking became the freight arm of UPS. Cochrane’s wife of eighty-one years, Louise Odell Blanks (1916–2015), was one of seventeen children. She was born in 1917 at Long Branch Plantation in Halifax County, Virginia, where dirt roads crisscrossed to link a general store and a one-room schoolhouse. Orphaned at age five, she was reared by various sisters and, by age sixteen, was living in Richmond and working for DuPont. In 1932, Louise Blanks met and ultimately married Harwood Cochrane. Forty years later, she volunteered for VMFA’s vanguard ArtMobile, a museum on wheels that traversed the state to bring art and education to all reaches of the Commonwealth. Subsequently, Louise Cochrane joined the museum’s council and Harwood Cochrane joined its board of trustees. In 1988, the couple established the J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American Art, the first of its kind at VMFA. That fund has since acquired more than fifty master works by American artists from the eighteenth to the twentieth century (Figs. 10, 11).
The last decades of the twentieth century were watershed years for American art, in the wake of which arrived two extraordinary gifts of the twenty-first century. In 2008, the Museum of the City of New York donated the Worsham-Rockefeller Bedroom (Fig. 12). Though gifts from one institution to another are always a rarity, this instance was particularly meaningful. A remarkable example of a period interior crafted during the inaugural decades of domestic decoration, the bedroom embodies the high-style tastes and techniques fashioned at the hands of America’s most talented craftsmen. The room’s aesthetic value is enriched by the story it tells of Richmond-born Catherine Arabella Duval Yarrington (1850–1924), a Virginia phoenix who, out of the ashes of the Civil War, remade herself in Gilded Age New York. After her 1884 marriage to Collis P. Huntington (1821–1900), she sold the residence to John D. Rockefeller.
Similarly imbued with the power of place is the gift of Virginians James W. and Frances Gibson McGlothlin (Fig. 13). More than seventy works by American masters now grace the wing that bears their name (Fig. 14).
In tribute to a century of art patrons united by their shared ideal of philanthropy as good citizenship, VMFA is honored to host the loan exhibition at the 2018 Winter Antiques Show in support of East Side House Settlement. Collecting for the Commonwealth/Preserving for the Nation: Celebrating a Century of Art Patronage, 1919–2018—Virginia Museum of Fine Arts will be on view at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, January 19–28, 2018.
Images:Fig. 1: Gari Melchers (American, 1860–1932), John Barton Payne, 1930. Oil on canvas. VMFA; Gift of John Barton Payne (30.1.1).
Fig. 3: Richard Norris Brooke (American, 1847–1920), Pocahontas, 1889–1907. Oil on canvas. VMFA; Gift of John Barton Payne (19.1.51).
Susan J. Rawles is the associate curator of American painting and decorative art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond.
This article was written for the VMFA’s loan show exhibition at the 2018 Winter Antiques Show (January 19-28) at the Park Avenue Armory, NYC.
This article was originally published in the 18th Anniversary/Spring issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine. AFA is affiliated with Incollect.
1. Cited in The Red Cross Courier, XIV, 9 (March 1935): 8.
2. 2.The New York Times, January 25, 1935, cited in The Red Cross Courier: 16.
3. “Secretary Lane Preaches Gospel of True Americanism for Home and Foreign Born,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, Vol. 69, no 12 (January 12, 1919): 1.