Business Gets Artsy: Recent Art Donations are the Biggest Yet

It’s not unusual for businessmen and women who have made it big to give back to their communities. But the scale on which some have donated to local art museums is getting more impressive every day. From Thom Weisel’s generous donations of Indian art to the de Young Art Museum in San Francisco to Spencer and Marlene Hays’s bequeathed collection of 19th and 20th century art headed for the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the business world is not afraid to give back on a big scale.

Thom Weisel is a prime example of a big business heavy hitter who has shifted his focus in recent years to giving back to his local art community. Founder of legendary San Francisco investment bank Montgomery Securities, Weisel now spends less time in the board room and more time building a world-class art collection, including pieces from the early New York school, the California figurative movement, and Native American work. His favorite artists include Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Brown, Wayne Thiebaud, David Park, and Franz Kline.

The recently re-opened San Francisco Museum of Art has just named three galleries after Weisel, thanks to his generous donations. And he gifted his 200 Native American pieces to the de Young Museum.

While Weisel still has his hand in the investment banking world, he’s pleased to be able to live a more balanced life, including time spent with family, philanthropic projects, and his art collection. He’s been a trustee at the San Francisco Museum of Art for more than 32 years and has endowed the museum’s curator of painting and sculpture position.

Weisel isn’t the only businessperson moved to make enormously generous donations of art, however. Just last month Marlene and Spencer Hays, who made their fortune through extremely successful companies selling books and men’s clothing, announced they will bequeath their collection of late 19th and early 20th century paintings to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris upon their deaths. This marks the largest donation to a French museum by a foreign donor in over 70 years.

And while the Musée d’Orsay waits on that, its staff and visitors can comfort themselves with the Hayes’ initial donation of 187 pieces worth about €173 million, including pieces by Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, and Edgar Degas.

This isn’t the first time the Hayses have worked with the Musée d’Orsay, either. Over the last 15 years, they have developed a close relationship with the museum, including lending a selection of their collection for the 2013 exhibition “A French Passion.”

The Hayses have had a great love for France—Paris in particular—since their first trip there in 1971 just after their business really took off. Since then, they have devoted themselves to collecting and supporting French art both in Europe and stateside.

For some businesspeople, getting involved in the art world is more than just a passion—it’s a cause. Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and her husband Gustavo, who made their multibillion-dollar fortune in Latin American media, are hoping their enormous art donations to New York’s MoMA will bring more attention and appreciation to Latin American art.

The Cisneroses adorn their home with Modern abstraction and contemporary works from Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, and Uruguay. And over the last 16 years, they’ve donated 40 pieces to MoMA, where Patricia Cisneros has served on the board since 1992.

Their latest donation of 102 works will become the backbone of the museum’s new research institute for the study of Latin American art. Artists include Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Pape, Jesús Rafael Soto, and Tomás Maldonado. Twenty-one of the artists from the donation are entering the museum’s collection for the first time. In addition, many will be lent to other museums over time to share Latin American masterpieces with a larger audience.

Big name businesspeople like Weisel, the Hayses, and the Cisneroses aren’t just making waves in the world of business. They are increasingly shaping the face of art both in their own communities and in the larger world.