by Liza Roberts
photographs by Nick Pironio
“It does something for you. Something rich and powerful and exciting. It has to be around.” Jim Patton is in his Chapel Hill apartment, surrounded by extraordinary art and talking about it. “I can’t imagine a single day in my life where it hasn’t meant something to me.”
During his 65-year marriage, Patton – a Durham native and UNC Chapel Hill graduate who went on to a long and influential career as a Washington, D.C. lawyer and lobbyist – collected art with his wife Mary, who died last year. Together the couple amassed a collection of 20th century American art to rival the best. For years, they filled their homes in Washington, D.C., Tucson, Aspen, and Chapel Hill with major works by artists including Ellsworth Kelly, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Richard Diebenkorn, Milton Avery, Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler, David Park, and Ansel Adams.
Today, most of that seminal work has a new home at the North Carolina Museum of Art. The Pattons had long planned to give the collection to the public – an original plan to give it to UNC’s Ackland Art Museum didn’t work out – but thanks to their decision to donate it to the NCMA, a wider audience of art lovers can now enjoy it. For the first time, the couple’s art will hang together at The Patton Collection: A Gift to North Carolina, an exhibit that will run at the NCMA through Aug. 23. The works will then take their place in the museum’s permanent collection.
“It’s a transformative gift,” says NCMA director Larry Wheeler. Valued at $25-$30 million, the group of 100 works is one of the largest gifts ever given to the museum. It fills significant holes in its existing collection and “allows us to tell the more complete story of 20th century art,” says chief curator Linda Dougherty. It does that by adding artists previously unrepresented in the museum’s collection, including David Park, Hans Hofmann, Masayuki Nagare, and Sean Scully, and by augmenting under-represented artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Helen Frankenthaler, and Adolph Gottlieb. “I think it’s just amazing that they decided to give it to North Carolina,” Dougherty says. It has an impact in so many ways.”
The gift of a lifetime
In his Chapel Hill apartment, where 11-foot ceilings make room for a massive canvas by David Park, a Helen Frankenthaler triptych, and a dark, wall-covering painting by John Walker, Patton, 86, says he and his wife never bought art as an investment, or with any grand plan in mind. “It was never intended to be a collection,” he says. “It was things that we loved, that inspired us, and I don’t know how to describe it – would wake you up in the morning. They would be your friends. And that’s the work we bought. The notion that it would be a collection…was not something we ever thought about.”
He says the museum will “have to wait” to get the works still in his possession, which also include photographs by Ansel Adams, a sculpture by the Japanese artist Masayuki Nagare (whose monumental granite Cloud Fortress stood at the base of the World Trade Center and was destroyed on 9/11), and a collection of Japanese prints. Another is Daphne, a massive nude by David Park. He let the museum have it for the opening of its new West building in 2010, but he asked for it back two years later. “I can’t do without it,” he says. “I should have something to enjoy between now and the time of my death.”
Worth an estimated $2.5 to $3 million today, Daphne has hung in every one of the Pattons’ homes since they bought the painting in San Francisco in 1976 – for $14,500. NCMA curator Dougherty says she’s not surprised that Patton adores the painting. It’s a particularly significant work by the California painter, but more important, she says, it’s an example of the couple’s extraordinarily prescient eye. “They bought these paintings when they were very contemporary,” she says. The works “didn’t get vetted” by the art establishment before Mary and Jim Patton discovered and loved them. Instead, Dougherty says, the Pattons “were buying them when they were being made.” That spot-on eye for art, she says, “is just intuitive.”
Patton agrees that he and Mary didn’t do a lot of studying-up before they bought a painting: “We picked by gut instinct.”
Art in all forms
Before he loved art, Jim Patton loved music. His mother, a musician, taught him to play piano at a young age, bestowing a gift that has lasted a lifetime. These days, his appreciation for music is mostly reflected in the blues, jazz, and classical compositions he plays, like a true audiophile, on a state-of-the-art McIntosh sound system and giant, sculptural MBL speakers, which look like works of art themselves.
He also loves poetry. Patton’s honors thesis at Chapel Hill was on California poet Robinson Jeffers, whose portrait by Ansel Adams hangs on his wall. “He’s my favorite poet still, after all these years.” Patton’s love of poetry inspired a significant collection of rare books, which includes collections of T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. The Pattons gave those books to the University of North Carolina’s Rare Book Collection in Wilson Library. “If I started T.S. Eliot and I loved his work, I would buy everything of T.S. Eliot that I could get my hands on,” he says. The Patton’s collections of James Dickey and of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, which they have also donated, are considered among the nation’s best.
When it comes to visual art, Jim Patton’s love is profound, and woven thoroughly into the fabric of the love for his wife. From the moment they met as young teenagers in Durham, “it was really love. I mean, there was no doubt.”
Mary, an artist, provoked his initial interest in art and kept it alive. When Jim was a student at Chapel Hill (he enrolled at 16), she helped inspire him to take art history and life drawing classes. “I wasn’t great,” he says, “I really liked figure drawing; I was not too bad at that. I was not very good at landscape.” He spent time with Mary in her studio as she painted, and his appreciation grew. “I never lost my enthusiasm for art, and of course living and loving someone like Mary just enhanced that. She was a wonderful woman in every sense of the word.”
He describes Mary, a graduate of UNC Greensboro (then a women’s college) and of the Rhode Island School of Design, as bright and funny, but also serious. “When it came to art, she was serious. And by and large, most of the things we bought, we did together. Once in a while, she bought. I would be reluctant, and she would be very strong.”
After Jim’s graduation from Harvard Law School, the recently-married couple spent a few years in Asia, where he worked for the CIA. Jim’s job as Special Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador in Saigon allowed the couple the opportunity to travel and soak in art and culture around the world. When they moved to Washington, D.C., Patton co-founded the law firm Patton Boggs, which he helped grow into a groundbreaking lobbying firm (and one with a noted art collection).
Along the way, the Pattons sought out art and brought it home. Mary Patton became a dedicated and influential art world volunteer and philanthropist. She founded and chaired the docent program for the Hirshhorn Museum, helped create the Smithsonian Craft Show, and volunteered for the Collector’s Committee of the National Gallery, among many other contributions. She painted all through her life – often scenes from nature – and had her work exhibited at the Ackland Art Museum, Corcoran Gallery, and the Aspen Institute, among other venues. At least two of her paintings will become part of the NCMA’s permanent collection.
When the couple decided to give their art to the NCMA, she described the donation as a calling: “My generation and the generations before it felt that it was our duty, if you loved and lived with works of art, then you want to share them with others.”
One of the first major works the Pattons bought together was by Ellsworth Kelly. Jim Patton remembers the occasion well. It was in 1981, and he’d brought Mary along on a business trip to New York. On a visit to an art gallery to see Kelly’s work, Mary found herself spellbound by the artist’s drawings of “perfect leaves.” Jim remembers thinking Kelly was “a splendid draftsman.”
“We said the drawings are wonderful, we should definitely get a drawing,” Patton recalls, but then “we both fell in love with one of the large paintings. We had no expectation or thought that we were going to buy it. It was expensive, well beyond our humble means.”
But, he says, “this crazy thing struck my heart.” He turned to Mary: “I really would love to have it,” he told her. “I know it’s impossible.” Patton smiles today as he recalls her response: “And she said, ‘I feel the same way you do, and maybe we can work out terms.’ And we went ahead and bought it.”
That painting, Blue Panel, which already hangs in the West Building’s Patton Gallery, is now the museum’s first major work by Kelly.
It’s clear that for Jim Patton, Blue Panel and all of the art he amassed with his wife is a manifestation of the life they shared. A symbol not only of their love, but also of the days they spent in mutual connoisseurship and appreciation – of beauty, of one another, and of culture in many forms.
He’s intrigued to see the collection hung for the first time as a show. The paintings and sculptures have always been in different rooms, and in different houses. “I’ve never seen them all together…I’ve never seen them with a curator’s eye,” he says. “I’m very sorry Mary is not around to see it. She knew she would miss it…but she still got the excitement.”