By Bonnie Gangelhoff
While this issue is dedicated to all women in the arts, we’ve singled out five in particular as our first-ever Notable Women of the Year. Our honorees are Anne Marion, founder of the new Georgia O’Keeffe Museum; Elaine Adams, who has been instrumental in reviving the 88-year-old California Art Club; Charles M. Russell historian Ginger Renner; artist/collector Joffa M. Kerr, a benefactor of the National Museum of Wildlife Art; and venerable New Mexico painter Bettina Steinke. We commend each of these women for their contributions to the arts. —The Editors
A decade after Georgia O’Keeffe’s death, the artist has finally gotten the museum she deserves, thanks to Anne Marion—Texas heiress, art lover, and woman with a vision. Marion is the whirlwind force behind the July opening of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, NM, the first museum in the United States dedicated to a single woman artist.
As president of the Burnett Foundation in Fort Worth, TX, Marion was originally approached in 1995 to help upgrade the O’Keeffe collection at Santa Fe’s Museum of Fine Arts. Instead she decided to endow a whole new museum, which opened in record time—just two years after Marion announced her plans. Located just off the Santa Fe Plaza, the 13,000-square-foot space de-signed by architect Richard Gluckman features 160 of O’Keeffe’s paintings, drawings, and sculptures dating from 1914 to 1977.
Marion donated several paintings from her private collection to the museum. Among them is Pelvis Series, Red With Yel-low , one of two paintings purchased from O’Keeffe in the 1960s by Marion’s mother Anne Burnett, heir to an oil fortune and wife of Tandy Corporation founder Charles Tandy. Marion’s husband John, a former board chairman of Sotheby’s, shares the little-known story that Burnett had O’Keeffe inscribe “dedicated to my Anne” on the back of the painting.
Today, with the help of the Burnett Foundation (named after her mother), Marion is helping to transform the visual arts scene in Santa Fe. The foundation has provided major funding for SITE Santa Fe, a gallery devoted to contemporary art. It has also donated $6.1 million to the College of Santa Fe to create the Anne and John Marion Center for the Photographic Arts, scheduled to open next year.
As a young girl, Elaine Adams dreamed about becoming an artist. When it came time for college, however, her mother convinced her to study something more practical, so Adams majored in economics with a minor in art. She went on to become a successful stockbroker. The art sirens called again, however, when she met California plein-air painter Peter Adams in 1988 and then married him.
Five years later, when Peter was asked to become president of the floundering California Art Club, it was Elaine who encouraged him to take the job. Together the couple has breathed new life into the CAC, one of the oldest and largest art associations west of the Mississippi. Founded in 1909 by painters Carl Oscar Borg, Hanson Puthuff, and William Wendt, the club had been in decline since the stock market crash in 1929 and had all but disappeared from the public eye. In just four years, under Peter and Elaine’s tutelage, it has grown from 80 to 1,200 members. An ambitious program of exhibitions, lectures, and networking links the members and promotes classical art training.
“I’m the figurehead,” says Peter, “but Elaine does all the work!” In fact, Elaine has become the communications center for the revitalized club, publishing a 16-page newsletter eight times a year for members and museums around the country. Adams writes and edits articles about both deceased and living artists. “Until we became involved with the CAC, we never realized how many good traditional artists were working in California,” Adams says. “I’m using my organizational and financial skills to spread our vision of art.”
Adams also spearheads club activities. In April, when the state was planning yet another freeway that would slice through her hometown of Pasadena, Elaine rallied CAC members to come out with their easels and paint on the proposed freeway site. Then she loaded members of the local media onto buses and brought them to see the historical buildings that would be destroyed if the freeway was constructed. Says Adams, “I’m a fighter for beauty and culture.”
In 1964, Ginger Renner had a vision that forever changed her direction in art. One night she dreamed that “Cowboy and Indian” art was going to be “hot,” and within a few months she began showing western artworks in her Desert Southwest Art Gallery in Palm Desert, CA.
Two years later she bought Trailside Galleries, Jackson, WY, and turned it into another successful western art gallery. “Western art became very popular, and we rode the wave of interest,” Renner says.
An independent woman who has always lived by her instincts, Renner sold both galleries in 1973 and married Frederic G. Renner, an authority on the art of Charles M. Russell. At first, Renner resisted stepping into her husband’s Russell territory and concentrated on her own art interests. But she soon succumbed to the beauty and storytelling wiles of the famed western artist.
By the time her husband died in 1987, Renner herself had become a leading authority on Russell’s work. Today, she authenticates Russell paintings for dealers, collectors, and auction houses and travels throughout the country giving lectures and seminars on Russell. In her spare time, Renner conducts tours of her home in Paradise Valley, AZ. A low-slung, airy dwel-ling, the house is filled with western artifacts, baskets, pottery, and beadwork as well as Russell paintings and a complete library dedicated to the artist.
Although Renner is the recipient of numerous awards for her contributions to western art, she is especially proud of her ability to work well with artists. “I’ve shown the work of 100 living artists, and that takes more skills than you’d learn in Psychology 101,” she says. “Artists are very emotional and need careful handling; I’m proud to say that 97 of those 100 artists are still my friends.”
Wyoming artist Joffa Kerr is fond of telling the story of how she became an art collector. The pivotal year was 1962. She and husband William are both avid outdoor enthusiasts, so it seemed like a stellar idea to present him with a painting of a fish for his birthday. That painting hooked the couple on collecting, and over the next quarter-century they amassed a remarkable collection of paintings and sculpture.
In 1987 the Kerrs donated 250 artworks to what was then called the Wildlife of the American West Art Museum in Jackson Hole, WY. Not content with the status quo, they were instrumental in launching a $10 million fundraising effort for a museum expansion in 1993. “All of our friends were artists, and we thought more people should see their work,” says Kerr.
The museum, now called the National Museum of Wildlife Art, moved to its new 51,000-square-foot facility in 1994. With 12 galleries with changing exhibitions showcasing 2,200 artworks, the museum tells the story of the western frontier—the native cultures, wildlife, and landscape. “Some of our visitors have never been to a museum before, and we hope we’re educating them,” Kerr says. The museum’s contribution to the cultural life of the Rocky Mountain region can be seen in the statistics: 2,200 members, 125,000 visitors annually, and education programs reaching 7,200 children.
The Kerrs live a few miles northwest of Jackson Hole in what Kerr calls a “ranchlette” made of logs. A stone’s throw from the main house she maintains a log-cabin studio where she creates whimsical bronze animals. The artist admits to a certain affection for bears and other animals of large mass. Lately her attention has turned to pigs, on which she bestows funky names like Swinelet O’Hara.
Her husband teases her about the current obsession, saying, “Honey, do you want to be known as a pig sculptor?” The good-natured Kerr responds with a laugh, “I don’t care just so long as I’m known.”
When artist Bettina Steinke is asked what makes a good portrait, she pauses for a micro-second and then snaps, “If you can look at the canvas and feel the person talking to you, that’s a good portrait.”
At 84, with 800 portraits to her credit, she knows her subject well. Steinke has painted Plains Indians, Eskimos, and movie stars including James Cagney and Spencer Tracy. Her work has been shown in galleries nationwide, and the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian owns her paintings of music legends Jerome Kern, Arturo Toscanini, and Ignacy Paderewski.
Indian subjects rank among Steinke’s favorites. “They’re a colorful and intelligent people. Indians feel they belong to this land and that we intruded. They believe that one day everyone else will be gone and they’ll be left,” Steinke explains. “I like that idea.”
As a college student, Steinke’s art education unfolded at Cooper Union in New York during an era when women students were segregated from men. Her education about the world beyond New York began when she met and married Don Blair, an Oklahoma photographer. It was Blair who introduced her to New Mexico and the bewitching landscape Steinke refers to as “God’s handiwork.”
Today, the couple lives on Canyon Road in the heart of old Santa Fe. Steinke’s adobe studio is about a mile away. In one corner, the artist keeps a book on John Singer Sargent opened to one of his paintings. “It’s kind of like having him here,” she says of her hero.
The past year has been the toughest in Steinke’s creative life. Her eyes are failing, and she can no longer see the world well enough to paint. “I’ve cried more this year than in my whole life,” she says. There are days when she goes to her studio and just talks to her easels. But Steinke is not the type to blubber for long. After describing such tearful moments, she’s likely to burst into her infectious laugh and declare, “It’s time for my vodka.”
When asked about advice for women artists, Steinke says she has a golden rule: “Don’t have a studio in your house. No one will take you seriously.”
Featured in “Portfolio: Notable Women of 1997″ November 1997