The Robert & Jane Meyerhoff collection is viewed as one of the world’s best private collections of latter 20th century art. Consisting of works from both American and European artists, including Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Grace Hartigan, the collection showcases post-war abstract expressionism and successive movements.
The collection commenced when Mrs. Meyerhoff along with her artist mother, sought an outlet to commemorate the memory of her late father, Harry Bernstein, so she contacted the Baltimore Museum of Art in regards to purchasing a series of pieces in her father’s name. It was 1954, and abstract expressionism was flourishing in popularity, so a suggested trip to New York along with Museum dignitaries allowed Mrs. Meyerhoff to view many pieces and purchase several including Hans Hoffman’s “Autumn Gold”, which would become the first piece in her own private collection.
Having first become interested in art while recovering from polio, Mrs Meyerhoff was renowned as having a keen eye for color and a dedicated interest in continually advancing her art knowledge at the same time as growing her beloved collection. Her husband, Robert, a civil engineer who established the property management and construction company Henderson-Webb, said of one of her initial purchases of a Rothko piece 'I can't believe you spent $3,000 on something that looks like this.”
Although never having set out to become art collectors, over time their acquisitions grew, and Mrs Meyerhoff took great delight in displaying the pieces in her home and later in dedicated galleries at the family estate in Phoenix, Maryland.
Aside from a passion for art, the Meyerhoffs dedicated themselves to philanthropy, setting up a scholarship program with the University of Maryland to provide financial assistance and mentoring to aid ethnic diversity among undergraduate students in the fields of science and engineering.
After having provided funding to purchase Barnett Newman’s “Stations of the Cross” series, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1986, a year later the Meyerhoffs announced that they would be donating their entire collection - which is estimated to be worth in excess of $300 million - to the National Gallery, as a gift to the people of America. Many other galleries and museums vied for the position, but the Meyerhoff’s felt that the National Gallery being free of admittance fee and open to the public would be a far more suitable home for their vast array of works.
The nation was given a taste of the collection when in 1996, the National Gallery exhibited 194 works from the Robert & Jane Meyerhoff Collection, the first time that it had been shown in virtually its entirety, filling a large proportion of the East building and being met with overwhelming praise from visitors. In the 13 years since then, only art collectors, dealers and museum curators have been among the enviable few that have been able to view these masterpieces where they reside at the Meyerhoff ranch.
With works consisting of dozens of drawings, paintings and sculptures from notable artists including Richard Serra, Roy Lichtenstein, Howard Hodgkin and Frank Stella, this certainly is one of the most eclectic and interesting private collections of our time.
The Meyerhoffs remain the largest donors of art to the National Gallery in Washington, next to founder Andrew W. Mellon.