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Phyllis Wattis gives $3 million to Stanford Museum

The Stanford University Museum of Art has received a $3 million gift from Bay Area philanthropist Phyllis Wattis to endow a curatorship in the art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The gift also will fund acquisitions, exhibitions, conservation and educational programs in those areas.

The Wattis gift coincides with a major gift of sculptures from collectors Ruth and Marc Franklin that includes 23 objects from west and central Africa, one Nootka figure from British Columbia, three Okvik (ancient Eskimo) ivory carvings, and three figures and a mask from Indonesia. Most of the African pieces are masks and figures, and many come from the Republic of the Congo.

Marc Franklin is a professor of law at Stanford, and Ruth has been serving as the museum's curator for Africa, Oceania and the Americas since 1989.

Phyllis Wattis supported the campaign to establish the Rodin Sculpture Garden at Stanford Museum in 1985, and in 1989 she endowed three professorships in art, medicine and business.

"Phyllis Wattis is a splendid friend of the arts and an admirer of the art from the tribal world," said Thomas K. Seligman, the Jill and John Freidenrich Director of the museum and a specialist in the field of African art. "Needless to say, I am delighted with the news of her magnificent gift to our museum.

"This will enable us to strengthen in a major way a curatorial and collection area that I have long hoped to build at Stanford," Seligman added. "The programs that this gift will make possible will also support a number of faculty in their teaching in this field."

Seligman said a search for the new curator likely will begin next fall, and interviews probably would be held in winter quarter 1999.

Since the founding of New York's Museum of Primitive Art by the Rockefeller family, Seligman said, collections of art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas typically have been "bundled together," in spite of the disparate cultures and peoples that are represented. About 20 art museums currently have substantive collections in these areas, he added.

Seligman was instrumental in the development of the department of the art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where he was formerly deputy director. His interest in African art dates from the late 1960s, when he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia.

"I've been working in Africa for 30 years, and to be able to bring this art to the world and institutionalize it in a meaningful way is really gratifying," he said.

In the 1970s, Wattis accompanied Seligman on several trips to Melanesia, New Guinea and West Africa.

"At age 70 Phyllis was getting in and out of dugout canoes and climbing sandy volcanic ash calderas in New Hebrides," he said. "She has a wonderful spirit and is an enormously generous person who also is very focused on what she does."

Wattis has made a loan to the museum of a 1971 oil painting by Robert Motherwell, Pilgrim, which will be on display when the museum re-opens in January 1999.

The Wattis and Franklin gifts come at a time when the museum is in the final stages of a major rebuilding and expansion project. Closed since the 1989 earthquake, the museum is scheduled to reopen as the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts in January 1999. The new center will include the historic main building, a new 42,000-square-foot wing, an upgraded Rodin Sculpture Garden and new sculpture garden areas. The wing will house large galleries for special exhibitions and the museum's permanent collection of modern and contemporary art, as well as an auditorium, cafe and bookstore.


By Diane Manuel

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