The Spencer Hays Legacy

Spencer Hays

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Spencer Hays, known in recent months in Europe for the important art donation he has made to the Musée d’Orsay, has died in New York

Philanthropy, although it may sound surprising to some, is not only not disappearing, but also booming, and in these years, also in the last months, it seems to shine as never before: nothing is capable of annihilating the noble drive to treasure art, in order to give it away after a life of contemplation of its beauty. Perhaps people who surround themselves with art and achieve an intimate dialogue with it, receive as a result of this sublime communion, a message through beauty that directs them to that path of generosity.

One of these cases is the donation received by the Musée d’Orsay from the hands of Marlen and Spencer Hays. In my opinion the headline the New York Times chose to report this donation announced just a few months ago was great: “How France Won the Hearts, and the Art, of 2 American Collectors”. All the media agreed this was the most important donation received by a French museum since 1945. The headline made it clear that France did not only obtain art, but rather had earned the hearts of the collectors. The story is always the same in cases of success: the generosity of the patron, of course, but also the good work and meticulous professionalism of the grantees. Some hidden places in the heart of the owners, sometimes help this dualism.

The Texan couple enjoyed an extraordinary art collection of exhibited at their Nashville mansion (replica to the Hôtel de Noirmoutier, located in a small mansion on the Rue de Grenelle in Paris) and in their New York residence decorated by Renzo Mongiardino: a total of 600 works dated between the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. A part of this donation (187 pieces) has already been delivered, expressing gratitude to the French government for the appointment of “Commander of the Legion of Honour”. The donation’s main condition is very simple: the collection must be displayed in a single space, and not be disintegrated under any circumstances. The museum, of course, has decided to move both its archives and the library to fit a new space for the exhibition of these works.

The Hays, whose artistic training was self-taught and who created their economic empire out of nothing (they started with a door to door book sales business), offered a very coherent collection whose nucleus is, from the deliveries made so far, 69 works from Les Nabis. Aside from their confessed love for France, the donation was determined by the connection made between the wealthy couple and the Parisian Musée d’Orsay which originated a few years back with the occasion of the exhibition entitled “A French Passion. The Marlene and Spencer Hays Collection”. On this occasion they experienced the feeling of emptying the walls of their houses and allowing the public to contemplate their works in the old Gare d’Orsay building, once the palace and gardens of Queen Margot whose life was narrated by Alexander Dumas. She was Felipe II’s sister-in-law, who held the French crown after Navarre. The name of Spencer Hays is now forever linked to the legacy of the Parisian museum.


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