Bill Small's Big Collection
By Margaret Regan
It was a crisp December morning in the barrio just south of downtown. A strong winter sun warmed up the neighborhood, though, lighting up in democratic fashion not only the trendy salmon walls of the gentrifiers' restored adobes but also the cracked, yellowing houses of poor families. Out in the street, in between the BMWs and the dented clunkers, workmen were quietly digging trenches for new fiber optic cable. No one paid much attention to the U-Haul truck parked in the long driveway of a tidy white house on the corner, pulled in way past the cyclone fence.
A rental truck is an ordinary sight in this yin-yang neighborhood of poverty and wealth, but a closer look would have yielded something extraordinary. Because going onto the truck one by one were gigantic modern paintings, huge canvases thick with luxuriant swaths of paint, museum-quality works valued at thousands and thousands of dollars. Here was a Seurat-like landscape, "Virginia Dogwood," by New York painter Joseph DiGiorgio, being gently nudged aboard by white-gloved workers. There was "Bridge to Nowhere," by another New Yorker, Chuck Connelly, a two-panel work 18 feet long, last seen publicly in the movie New York Stories. (The film had viewers believing it was the work of actor Nick Nolte.)
Next was "Elk Springs," an early work by Tucson artist Jim Waid. On into the truck went "Bug Out," a wildly exuberant work by the gifted Puerto Rican painter Raphael Collazo, who died not long ago of AIDS. And so on and on throughout the day. The truck was filled, and filled again, with art carried out from a pink-and-white building tucked inconspicuously into a courtyard behind the house.
The paintings being disgorged from this secret repository in the barrio were the last remnants of the private collection of the late William A. Small Jr., the former newspaper magnate turned voracious art collector in the last two decades of his life. The workers, all from the Tucson Museum of Art, were cheerful ("Nick Nolte's a pretty good painter," joked Simon Donovan as he carefully maneuvered "Bridge to Nowhere" onto the truck) and no wonder. They were taking possession of some 90 artworks that Small and his widow, Susan, had donated to the TMA, a windfall, says painter Waid, that "fundamentally changes the nature of the museum."
But those 90 artworks, now on view in a major TMA show that nearly fills the entire museum, are only a small part of the story. They were just a portion of a collection of some 700 contemporary artworks the Small estate has now disbursed to some 47 museums and institutions around the country. Smith College, Susan Small's alma mater, had first pick for its museum, and its curators carried off many of the top artists in the collection, including Louise Nevelson, George McNeil, Joan Snyder and Donald Sultan.
But Small was an inveterate collector of Tucson artists, too. With the dispersal of his estate, works by Tucsonans have been propelled into museums all around the country. One painting, by James G. Davis, got as far as Berlin, landing in the permanent collection of the Berlinische Galerie.
But the odd thing is that this valuable cache of art was so little known in Tucson before now. Small was so passionate about his privacy that even his obituary in The Arizona Daily Star, a paper he once owned, noted with some irony, "Close friends and associates of Small said he was an extremely private person who always tried to stay out of the limelight. The friends and relatives declined to be quoted."
Small kept his art housed in his hidden-away barrio gallery, unbeknownst to his neighbors and to the community at large, lending the paintings out for museum exhibitions only on condition of anonymity. Built in a back lot behind his office in 1987, the Annex, as it was called, was a treasure trove that until Small's death at age 70 in October 1994 remained a tightly guarded secret in the art community.
"Bill was so private," says painter Kevin Sloan, who worked for Small for two years in the late '80s as curator in the Annex. "He came from a wealthy family but he didn't need to flaunt it, to have other people know about it. He just lived his life. He was opposed to other people knowing what he had."
The artists whose work Small collected were so grateful for his empathetic patronage that they were happy to keep it secret. He seemed to have a knack for buying work just when they most needed the support. James Cook, a successful Tucson painter, is typical. He's still torn between his reluctance to go against his patron's desire for privacy ("He wanted his life out of the public eye," he says) and his desire to sing the praises of a man he considers crucial to his development as an artist. The two first met back in 1975.
"He bought, I think, about four paintings," Cook says. "It just stunned me. It was the first time in Tucson that anyone bought a sizable number of paintings from me. And that continued....He was not the only reason we stayed in Tucson, but he was an important one....His contributions to the cultural scene were substantial."
The word about those anonymous contributions slowly got out and about in Tucson in the year after Small's death. The Arizona Theatre Company noted in a program tribute that "Bill Small would hate our doing this, but, being beyond the reach of his veto, we go ahead anyway and dedicate ATC's 1995-96 season to his memory." Written by his old newspaper friend George Rosenberg, the homage said that not only had Small always been a major donor to ATC but that it was the Smalls' Stonewall Foundation that rescued the company when it was about to go under in the late '80s. (Stonewall, founded by the Smalls in 1966, has lavished funds on numerous community non-profits, notably the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, TMA and others.)
Over at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, which received 28 works from the Small estate, director Peter Bermingham wrote a similar tribute in his museum newsletter when the paintings went up in the Recent Acquisitions show last fall. But the Small extravaganza that opened at the TMA in December ended Small's art anonymity once and for all. An unprecedented crowd of some 1,000 people squeezed into the museum for the gala opening of the exuberant, eclectic exhibition called A Gift of Vision: The William A. and Susan S. Small Collection. A gleeful Robert Yassin, director of TMA, wrote in a catalog essay that the Small gift was a moment "that move(d) the museum far forward in a single stride."
Waid, who helped Small amass his collection, says much of what TMA got will increase in value, particularly works by the likes of Willy Heeks and Joseph Santore. But the collection as a whole represents one man's personal taste rather than all the art trends of his time.
"He wasn't interested in the political/didactic stuff at all. I love geometric and optical things, but he never responded to it....He was interested in luscious beauty....It's obvious from the TMA show that he loved color and paint and lush images."
It was the cheap, ink-stained paper of the newspaper business that gave Small the wherewithal to indulge his passion for lush colors on canvas. He was born into a newspaper family in Chicago in 1924. His father, William Sr., moved the family down to Tucson when he and a partner, William H. Johnson, bought what was then called the Tucson Daily Citizen in 1936. Later, Small Sr. bought out Johnson's shares.
Bill Jr. graduated from Tucson High School in 1941 and enrolled at Cornell University with the intention of studying architecture. But World War II intervened, and he switched to a Navy program in civil engineering at the University of New Mexico. Toward the end of the war he shipped out with the Navy to the Philippines. When peace broke out, Small began his apprenticeship in his father's business in earnest. In between stints at the Citizen, he held a string of other jobs, with United Press in San Francisco and Seattle, the Idaho Evening Statesman in Boise, the Denver Post. He came home to Tucson for good in 1950, becoming assistant publisher to his father at the Citizen.
George Rosenberg worked for the Smalls from 1947 to 1967, for 15 years as managing editor of the paper. Small Jr., he says, "kept a close watch on things....He had a very good sense about features....A long time ago he did write a mystery column (with another writer) and gave it a fictitious name."
Asa Bushnell, now community relations manager for the Pima County Sheriff's Department, worked at the Citizen for 20 years. "Bill was good at newspaper work. He made a good city editor. He helped me a lot."
But tumultuous times were ahead for Tucson's newspaper business. The Citizen and The Arizona Daily Star had a joint operating agreement (JOA) since 1940 that covered printing, distribution and advertising. In late 1964, the two families that owned the Star were about to sell the paper to an Ohio chain. Small Sr. stepped in and exercised an option contained in the JOA to buy the Star, pledging that it would remain editorially independent.
"Our decision to buy the Star was made for one compelling reason," Small Sr. was quoted as saying at the time. "It is a desire to see this strong, outspoken newspaper remain a vital force in Tucson, rather than become just another link in a nationwide chain."
The sale went through in early January 1965, for $10 million. The Justice Department did not look kindly on the Smalls' ownership of both papers in a single city, nor on their JOA. Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit and a lengthy court battle followed, thrusting Small Jr. into the kind of public arena that was anathema to his private nature. The newspapers eventually lost the suit, and lost again on appeal in the Supreme Court. The politically conservative Smalls had always supported Republicans editorially, but the move to save their papers' JOA came from Arizona's Democratic congressional representatives. Sen. Carl Hayden and Rep. Mo Udall both introduced bills to allow JOAs, with the presumption that such agreements would help keep two independent newspaper voices in one city. After some debate, Congress passed the bill and President Nixon promptly signed it in 1970.
Nine months after the Newspaper Preservation Act put the JOA on firm footing, Small Jr., now publisher, sold the Star to the Pulitzer chain for the same price his father had paid: $10 million. Five years later he sold the Citizen too. It went for $30.2 million in stocks to another chain, the giant Gannett company. The sale of the paper to a chain caused "a lot of anguish" to newspapermen like Bushnell. But even though it went against Small's father's earlier wishes, it was a shrewd business move. Gannett stocks skyrocketed in the 1980s and the Smalls' fortune grew.
Rosenberg defends his friend's decision to go with Gannett.
"The Star had been sold. He'd gone through the agonies and tension of the antitrust lawsuit by the government. TNI (the printing and distribution arm of the papers) had been struck in the middle '60s over the gradual disappearance of hot type. And Bill was concerned that since the Star was a Democratic paper he didn't want the Citizen sold to another liberal-leaning paper. He rejected several other offers. Some just wanted the Citizen as a cash cow. Bill was anxious to see the paper sold to someone who would let it grow with the community. Gannett fitted the bill."
And, Rosenberg adds, the community benefited by the profits Small reaped. The charities that have now become public, he says, are "just the tip of the iceberg."
Sloan, the painter who worked for Small in later years, said Small's office was curiously devoid of mementos of his newspaper days.
"You would never know he'd been publisher of that paper. When I would ask him about it, about the lawsuit, he would say only that it was a really trying experience. I think if Bill had had his druthers, he would have been an architect. The newspaper thing was a family legacy, and Bill was very duty conscious. Luckily he was able to get out."
At the age of 53, Small was ready to start a whole new life.
We first met when he bought a couple of my paintings at the Harlan Gallery in the 1970s," remembers Jim Waid. "We started meeting a little bit. He would come over to my studio. We became good friends."
Small had been buying art off and on since the '50s, but his early collecting was fairly conventional. With the help of Tucson's Rosenquist Gallery, he bought up early works on paper by the likes of Audubon, Catlin and Picasso. After he hooked up with Waid, who paints thick and colorful oils on canvas that draw their roiling shapes from nature, his tastes began to grow more adventurous. He started looking at painters of his own time, painters who relished interesting surfaces on the canvas.
"Around 1983 or '84, he said he wanted to start collecting in an organized way, to go to the galleries in New York," Waid says. "He wanted to collect living artists."
The two began an extraordinary collaboration. Small would send Waid off to New York City, where he'd put him up in an apartment he owned near Washington Square in Greenwich Village. Waid would scout out the galleries in advance.
"Then Bill would come and we'd spend days going to the galleries. He was so robust. He'd go all day looking. Going upstairs, walking. I'd come back to the apartment and crash and he'd be sitting there making notes. Sometimes his light would be on late at night. He was a methodical note taker. He would usually wait until the end of the trip to buy, but sometimes he'd buy it on the spot and shock everybody. Often he'd pick the most adventurous thing in the show."
A passion seemed to grip Small when he was on the hunt for art.
"One time I saw him break out in a sweat, there was something he wanted so much," Waid says. "Bill told me, 'It's a compulsion, a disease. The only way to stop is not to go to art galleries.' "
"I've seen people get excited about money in art. That didn't really have anything to do with it for Bill. He genuinely derived pleasure from the painting. It was as pure a form of appreciation as I've ever seen in a person not an artist."
Once he discovered an artist, Small bought and bought. By the time of his death, Small owned over 30 Jim Waids. In a characteristic gesture, he bought up five Waids when the painter told him he intended to give up his teaching job at Pima to try to make a living at art. (Small once told Waid in later years: "If there's one thing I don't need it's another Jim Waid"). He owned about 20 Kevin Sloans, a dozen James Cooks, a dozen Raphael Collazos.
As his collection grew, Small needed more space. One of his three sons, William S., had grown up to become the architect he himself had once dreamed of being. The son designed the Annex, a place with storage and exhibition space, where, Sloan remembers, "We used to set up different shows. It was Pretend Museum."
But as Small grew older, the question arose: What was he going to do with all that art? On one East Coast trip Waid and Small went to see the famous Barnes collection in suburban Philadelphia, which opened to the public only after a series of legal skirmishes. Barnes was a notoriously eccentric collector whose will, now overturned, stipulated that his sumptuous collection of Impressionist paintings could never be lent or reproduced, effectively shutting them off from public view or scholarly study.
"Bill thought Barnes was nuts!" Waid remembers. "It was exactly the kind of thing he didn't want to do."
What Small did want to do was give away the art in a way that he thought would most enhance the reputations of the artists. To his way of thinking, it would be counterproductive to keep the collection together.
"He thought that would be way too limited for the artists," says Jan Crebbs, a local curator Small hired in July 1984 when he knew he was dying. "He thought that the more collections they were in, the more widely they were seen, the better it would be for them."
A diagnosis of terminal cancer had suddenly made the issue pressing. Small contacted the Smith College Museum of Art first.
"Bill called me up and told me the whole story with characteristic forthrightness," says Suzannah Fabing, the Smith director. "He told me, 'I have only a few months to live and I want to give my collection away.' "
The Smith delegation came out to Tucson, and with a weakened Small watching from his wheelchair, selected 93 works, with 20 more promised later. "We feel we came away with real depth of the last two decades," Fabing says.
Once Smith had taken its portion, and the Smalls had decided what they wanted to keep, Crebbs' job was to find a home for the rest. She delicately negotiated with the museums and the artists.
"I really did feel like Lady Bountiful," she says. "Nobody said 'I don't want to talk you.' "
"Bill set it up very kindly," says Sloan, who now lives in New Orleans. "Jan would tell the artist: 'This museum wants it. What do you think?' I had absolute veto power. Bill set it up so we could have control. My résumé suddenly got twice as big."
Sloan, who got into about 10 different museum collections, including the Museum of Fine arts in Santa Fe, was not the only Tucson artist with a fattened résumé. Given a James G. Davis painting, the Wichita Art Museum is now planning a major exhibition of his works. Lynn Taber-Borcherdt, ex-Tucsonan Michael Berman and Waid all were propelled into the Smith museum. Gail Marcus-Orlen got a picture in Telluride. Cook, Davis, Waid and Sloan all got into the Phoenix Museum of Art. Arizona State University solidified its collection of Arizona artists.
"It's very unusual what he did," says ASU curator Linda McAllister. "To collect all that art and then just give it all away."
The art is gone now, and the Annex is curiously empty, its fate uncertain. No more trucks will be coming to unload new paintings on Bill Small's private loading dock, but every day trucks unload all over town the papers his father once owned, the papers he believed he saved. There's no one else in Tucson collecting art on the scale that Small did, Waid says. But it's not likely artists will soon forget him.
Sloan, now ranked by David Rubin, curator at the Phoenix Art Museum, as "one of the most gifted young painters around," says Small "set the ball rolling for me in terms of my career. He bought a painting which paid my rent for six months. That had never happened to me before. I had just enough money to get by. Then I reinvested all the money (from the sale) into materials, into my work. It was a stamp of validation for me, not from a family member or a friend. It meant a lot. It was a powerful event in my life."
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