Walters receives artwork, promise of $4 million bequest from New Mexico collector

In one of the largest gifts ever received by Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, a New Mexico collector is donating some 300 pieces and promising a $4 million bequest to shine a spotlight on the art of the ancient Americas.

"This is a huge development for us," said Walters director Gary Vikan, noting that the soon-to-be-created center for the study of the arts of the ancient Americas should prove especially alluring to the area's "very vibrant" Latino community. "This is a huge new ingredient in building audience for us," he said.

The donation, from a collection Santa Fe resident John Bourne began in 1940, includes 70 pieces of art given to the museum in 2009, with an additional gift of some 230 pieces promised. In addition, Bourne, 85, has earmarked a $4 million bequest from his estate to endow a center for the study, conservation, interpretation and display of the arts of the ancient Americas.

"This extraordinary gift will vault the Walters into a position of leadership among American museums in this new and exciting field of collecting and research," said Walters board President Douglas W. Hamilton Jr.

Art of the ancient Americas "is not part of what historically America has thought to be part of museums," Vikan said. "It's a latecomer, compared to the Renaissance, Baroque, Greece, Rome, the Iimpressionists, all that stuff."

Bourne's donation will be combined with a 2009 gift of $3.25 million from the Ziff family of New York City. The earlier money was used to endow a curator of the arts of the ancient Americas position at the Walters, as well as partially endow a conservation position and exhibition fund. The new center will include three staff positions, as well as funds to acquire, exhibit and eventually create a gallery expressly for such art, most likely within the existing museum building.

Taken together, the two cash gifts, totaling $7.25 million, are "totally without precedent" in the museum's history, Vikan said.

Bourne's collection includes a wide variety of pieces, covering a vast geographical area. "It covers the whole waterfront, from the Andes to what is now east Mexico," Vikan said. "It has some very good terra cottas, some jade, gold, some sculpture … just about everything."

The Walters' current holdings include a few pieces of ancient American art, including some pre-Colombian jewelry and small gold pieces that were part of founder Henry Walters' original collection. But the Bourne collection will increase the museum's holdings in that area exponentially, Vikan said.

Examples of ancient American art have "always been there, on a teeny scale," Vikan said. "Walters was among the very first collectors in the U.S. to buy this stuff."

Many of the pieces donated will be featured in an exhibit, "Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas: The John Bourne Collection Gift," to be displayed at the Walters Feb. 12-May 20, 2012. The exhibit will include about 130 pieces of Mesoamerican, Central American and Andean South American art.

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