The foyer off the living room is centered with an antique Italian chest, above which is a painting of a market scene by Mabel Alvarez.
By Manya Winsted
There are as many ways of formulating a collection as there are collectors. And despite what many might believe, it doesn’t take a fortune to build an art collection that you love unless, of course, you plan to start with Picassos or Renoirs. For Santa Feans Donn and Pam Duncan, collecting art together began more than 30 years ago with a desire to learn more about art. Newly married and living in Tucson, AZ, at the time, the couple knew they wanted to begin collecting but couldn’t decide where to start. “We had many serious discussions about what we wanted an art collection to do for us,” says Pam. “Since we were drawn to a lot of different kinds of art, we decided we needed a focus so that we didn’t just acquire a haphazard bunch of ‘stuff.’”
The premise the couple arrived at was that building their art collection would be more about learning than mere acquisition. The question then was, what did they want to learn about? Because Pam had a double major in art history and studio art from the University of Arizona and was thus well versed in classical and impressionist art, Donn—a physician and lecturer—felt the collection should focus on areas of art that Pam knew nothing about so that they were learning together.
Desert Honey by Jim Waid hangs in the Duncan’s dining room, flanked by an antique chest with a 19th-century Mexican santo atop it. In the foreground are Isadora, Agatha, and Tuck.
Thus, their first purchase was not a traditional still-life or landscape painting but a vibrant, energetic, decidedly contemporary work by Arizona artist Jim Waid. They discovered the piece at an exhibition at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. At the time, Pam was working in the museum’s education department with exhibitions and outreach programs. The coloration and impact of the piece, titled Tickfaw, was muted in contrast to Waid’s current work but had a power that attracted the Duncans. Over the years since that first purchase, they have added a few more of his paintings to their collection. “We like his work, and as we got to know the artist we learned what inspired him,” says the couple. “We gained a sense of what he does, and it made the paintings more meaningful to us.”
Above an upholstered bench in the dining room are part of the Duncan’s collection of Gustave Baumann prints and one of the wood blocks used to create the print Autumnal Glory.
To educate themselves further about art, the Duncans began visiting art galleries at every opportunity. In one gallery they were intrigued by a small painting by an obscure female artist of the Hudson River School. “Women artists were not covered in art history curriculum,” says Pam, “and in our visits to galleries we started seeing works by women artists and responding to them.” The couple found themselves drawn to women artists from the period between 1850 and 1950, such as Barbara Latham, Gene Kloss, Henrietta Shore, Ruth Peabody, Teresa Ferber Bernstein, Matilda Browne, and Mabel Alvarez. “The work was affordable, so we decided to begin collecting in this narrow area,” says Pam.
They wanted to learn more about these painters, “but there wasn’t a lot written about these women artists, most of whom were deceased,” says Pam. So the couple gleaned what information they could by looking in galleries’ catalogs, scouring Who’s Who in American Art, and going to used book stores in search of reference materials. They also spent time exploring in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and California because many of the women artists who interested them had attended art schools on the two coasts. They discovered a wide range of paintings by women artists, from Hudson River School to modernist.
An early sculpture by Doug Hyde rests in the nicho, and an articulated Peruvian horsewhip depicting an Indian dressed and masked as a Spanish Colonial gentleman sits on the chest.
Through their research, they were interested to learn that many of these women painters had lived into old age. “Maybe it because they painted instead of playing bridge like other women of their day and were more engaged in life,” says Pam. They also uncovered fascinating tidbits that made their budding collection ever more interesting. On the wall in Donn’s office/study is an exquisitely straightforward, simple painting of shells by Henrietta Shore. The painting strikes the viewer first with the feeling that it is by Georgia O’Keeffe—and in fact Shore’s shell paintings were often compared to O’Keeffe’s flower paintings. Interestingly, Shore’s seashell collection is also known for providing inspiration for her longtime friend, photographer Edward Weston. His photographic studies of the shells became one of the most lauded and well-known series of art photographs ever made.
The next additions to the collection were influenced by Donn’s partnership in a Tucson gallery a business move that stemmed from his enthusiasm about art collecting and desire to learn more about the artistic process. In 1992, the gallery relocated to Santa Fe, and the Duncans moved with it. The change in venue “naturally led us to an interest in New Mexico artists,” says Pam, who by that time had turned her art education toward a career in interior design. The Duncans began adding some very fine examples of New Mexico folk and religious art to their collection.
They also had the opportunity to purchase works by renowned New Mexico artist Gustave Baumann when Donn’s partner in the gallery bought some of Baumann’s woodcut prints from the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe. “We saw them and immediately liked them,” Pam remembers. “At the time, these prints were relatively easy to come by and inexpensive.” In fact, it’s known that when Baumann needed money, he often called on friends to buy yet another print, so that some of these friends had large collections of his prints hung everywhere in their homes, including the laundry room. “Baumann usually did a print series of approximately 30 or so in each edition, and there were as many as 30 to 34 wood blocks cut for each color for each print,” says Pam. The Duncans have collected nine Baumann prints over the years, and for one, Autumnal Glory, they found and purchased one of the wood blocks Baumann used to create the scene.
Today their Santa Fe home showcases artworks reflecting some 30 years of collecting adventures. The most visually striking elements are some of the newest additions—works by leading glass artists. At the entry to the living room are cases exhibiting the fascinating glass creations of Flora Mace and Joey Kirkpatrick, Ginny Ruffner, Sonja Blomdahl, and Seth Randall, and a fascinating white skull-and-bones “artifact” by William Morris. On a nearby ledge is a nesting group of seven pieces by Dale Chihuly.
Although the last few years have been devoted to their professional lives Donn is active in health care policy formulation and implementation in hospitals, states, and the United States government as well as Asia-Pacific and European countries, and Pam has created one of the top design houses in Santa Fe—collecting art is still important to the Duncans. “We’d like to add more glass and also the work of more historic women artists from 1850 to 1950,” says Pam. “Our goal was to learn about art, and we continue to enjoy doing that. We’ve loved learning about and living with this collection.”
As evidenced by the Duncans, the curiosity and richness of discovery never diminish for that special breed known as Collectors.
Featured in December 2000