Sunday, April 28, 2013

Ralph T. Coe & his Foundation

We gave a party the other evening for an old friend who is unfortunately not with us anymore.  He did, however, leave a legacy, The Ralph T. Coe Foundation.  To all who knew him he preferred to be called Ted.

Ralph "Ted" Coe

He was born in Cleveland, Ohio.  Went to Oberlin college for his undergraduate degree and to Yale for his Master’s in Art History.  After a stint under the famous curator, director and art historian John Pope Hennessy at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, he was hired as a curator at the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery in Kansas City, where he went on to became director.

As a young art dealer I was introduced to Ted when he came to visit our gallery.  While he was somewhat older than I, he was a lot younger than my father and cousin who ran the firm, so we kind of hit it off.  The Nelson, as Kansas City’s art museum is known, bought many works of art from my family, including paintings, drawings, French 18th Century decorative arts as well as medieval objects.  

Ted w/ Gerald & Penelope
Years after meeting Ted I sent him to visit Eugene Victor Thaw a renowned art dealer more into modern fields where Ted bought a painting by Pissarro.  Ted’s father was a major collector of Impressionists so this was of great interest to Ted and as long as he lived Ted was an advisor to Henry Bloch of H&R Block who was a trustee of the museum and formed a great Impressionist collection.

Ted’s true love, however, was tribal art and particularly the art of the American Indians.  In 1976 he did the first international exhibition of Native American art called “Sacred Circles: Two Thousand Years of North American Indian Art” and eventually decided that pursuing this interest was more interesting to him than being the director of a great museum.  Ted moved to Santa Fe where he continued working on his next show, “Lost & Found Traditions: Native American Art 1965-1985”.   He wanted to show that the creative abilities of the American Indian still existed as it had hundreds of years ago.  He travelled all over the continent collecting works made in recent years and commissioning works for the show from many different tribes.  He would come back home to Santa Fe having covered tens of thousands of miles in a single trip.  Around the time of the exhibition Gene Thaw moved to Santa Fe and Ted guided him in building his great collection of Native American Art now housed in a separate wing of the James Fennimore Cooper Museum in Cooperstown, New York

In 2003 just before Ted’s 75th birthday an exhibition opened at the Metropolitan  Museum in New York with  a couple of hundred Native American objects from his collection which were eventually bequeathed to the museum.  The exhibition was called, “The Responsive Eye: Ralph T. Coe and the Collecting of American Indian Art”.  There you will find much more about this unique scholar and collector written by his family, friends and colleagues.

Ted did not want his passing to interfere with his mission.  He, therefore, set up a Foundation to continue his effort to share in his love of life and the pleasure of collecting, transmitting to all who were willing to listen and learn about tribal heritage and cultures.

Before he died Ted asked his niece, Rachel Wixom, daughter of the distinguished medievalist, William Wixom, to become executive director of the Foundation.  She left New York and moved to Santa Fe.  She wanted the first event for the Foundation to be for those who knew and loved Ted.  As a member of the Foundation’s Advisory Committee and having known Ted over more years than anyone else in Santa Fe I asked that this event be held at our home where ultimately 40 of his friends and admirers gathered to learn about the Foundation.   Rachel told us about some of the goals of the Foundation.  We are establishing a fellowship which allows someone, probably an advanced student, to come to Santa Fe for two months with a generous stipend and work on their own project but also work on the two thousand pieces left in Ted’s collection and organize a small exhibition using some of them.

Rachel Wixom

What distinguished Ted from all the others who have studied native cultures is that he came to it, not as an anthropologist or an archeologist, but rather as an art historian.  He used that critical eye to distinguish quality in tribal art.  We hope that this discipline can be fostered through the fellowship.

Rachel is working out of her home at the moment and the Foundation needs a home of it’s own to receive visitors, house fellowship winners and allow any staff to work. One hope is to buy Ted’s adobe home where the collection was assembled and housed for so many years.  There it might also be possible to show some of the collection.

1701 Agua Fria, Santa Fe NM 

The website also needs to be developed and while Ted catalogued much of the collection it still needs to be made accessible on the internet which is another complicated and expensive project.

Rachel, the board of directors and the advisory committee have lots of work ahead of them in in order to realize Ted’s final dream.

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