23 No. 8
publication of the International Sculpture Center
A Conversation with
by Robert Preece
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the 1970s, Sydney and Walda Besthoff have specialized in collecting modern
and contemporary sculpture, in addition to photorealist painting. In November
2003, the five-acre Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden opened
at the New Orleans Museum of Art. It features 50 sculptures, 41 of them
donated by the Besthoffs foundation, including works by Arman, Botero,
Bourgeois, Burton, Chadwick, Chia, Hepworth, Lipchitz, McCollum, Moore,
Pomodoro, Rickey, Segal, Shapiro, and Zadkine. (The remaining nine were
museum purchases or gifts from other donors.)
Bourgeois, Spider, 1996. Bronze,
70 x 296 x 278 in. Photo: Judy Cooper
most of the Besthoffs sculpture collection was on view at K&B
Plaza, a seven-story office building in downtown New Orleans, which Sydney
Besthoff purchased in 1973. The building, designed by Skidmore, Owings
and Merrill in 196062 and featuring an 18-foot granite sculptural
fountain designed by Isamu Noguchi, became the headquarters of K&B
Incorporated, a family-owned drugstore chain founded by Besthoffs
grandfather in 1905. Besthoff served as chairman and CEO of K&B until
1997, when he sold it to the Rite Aid Corporation. He still owns the building
though, and, even after the donation, it still contains a sizable art
Besthoff has served on the boards of numerous business and arts organizations.
He was a founder of the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans and past
president of its board of directors. He also serves on the board of the
New Orleans Museum of Art. Meanwhile, Walda Besthoff has had a lifetime
commitment to the performing arts, particularly theater and dance, as
a performer, staffer, and patron. Mrs. Besthoff served on the board of
the Contemporary Arts Center in the 1980s, chairing the Capital Campaign
for its expansion. She is currently a trustee of the New Orleans Museum
of Art. Sydney and Walda Besthoff are the recipients of the International
Sculpture Centers 2004 Patrons Recognition Award. The couple will
accept the award at a gala in their honor on Saturday, October 30, 2004
at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Preece: What particularly attracted you and Mrs. Besthoff to 20th-century
Pablo Casals Obelisk, 1983. Bronze, 240
x 84 x 60 in. Photo: Judy Cooper
Originally, we were very interested in collecting antique furniture. However,
after you fill up the house, theres not much you can do. So, we
wanted something else to collect. And I particularly wanted to collect
something within my size range, that I could get my arms around, that
wasnt too vast. And so we selected a very abstruse form of art known
as photorealism and went into it in the late 60s/early 70s,
when it was just starting to become a really hot area. After that, we
became very interested in other forms of art.
thought that sculpture was a nice adjunct, and we had an office building
in downtown New Orleanswith a 20,000-square-foot plaza. We commissioned
our first work, which happened to be by George Rickey, and George was
really delighted with the commission. He came here to install the piece.
And I worked with him on the installationin the sense that I was
around. I got really interested, and that started me off. From there,
we commissioned a few pieces, bought a few pieces. As the years went on
and on, we had a lot of stuff.
RP: Forty-one major works is a huge gift. What conditions did you
require? What concerns did you have?
Clair Cemin, Acme, 1990. Copper, 59 x 44 x 44 in. Photo:
I did put some conditions on the gift. The garden was to be named after
my wife and myself. A portion of the pieces have to be shown on a continuing
basis. For a certain period of time, they cannot be alienatedsold,
mortgaged, transferred, or gifted. Those were the basic conditions. And
the garden had to be open to the public.
RP: Do you mean admission-free?
No. Just open to the public. Its currently admission-free. I didnt
want to have the museum lock the garden upnot allow access or open
it only to members. It has happened in the past with gifts.
Why did you do this? Why now?
We had already set up a foundation, and all the pieces given to the museum
were part of the foundation. So, there was no tax benefit in giving the
sculptures to the museum. We wanted to donate the works at this point
in time because it would be good for the city of New Orleans, certainly
good for the museum, and it would simplify my estate. What are my kids
going to do with the pieces when I die? So we thought it was a good time.
The sculpture garden was in the planning stages for about 10 years. As
with all nonprofit entities, everything had to be done by consensus, and
it took a long time to work out the details.
RP: I understand that you were intimately involved in the practical
aspects of installing the sculptures in the garden. Could you explain
how this worked?
SB: First, for the general garden design, Lee Ledbetter, the architect,
and the landscape architect, based in New York, laid out the overall site.
I provided input about the paths and spaces for the garden design. Then
we placed the sculptures. We sited each sculpture where we thought it
was besta four-way mutual discussionmyself, the museum director,
the architect, and the landscape architect. And we had some arguments:
This should go here. No, it should go here because
And so on. For example, the architect sometimes wanted one thing, and
we were looking for another, and the museum was looking for another concept
as well. So it turns out, most of the more sedate pieces are
in the pine grove as you first come in, and the more contemporary pieces
are on the far side.
Sandle, The Drummer, 1985. Bronze, 106 x 55 in. Photo:
it came to the installation, we had to discuss how the sculptures were
to be mounted. And that required a fair amount of discussion. Some pieces
were already on plinths when they were here at the K&B Plaza. Some
were re-used, but a lot of times we had to design bases. Other sculptures
didnt need bases because they sit directly on the ground. I was
involved in the discussions, and I have a lot of practical experience
on how to do it. Youre moving a 2,000-pound sculpture, and it has
to fit between trees and branches, and it has to come down on the right
spotand it needs a plinth that is going to weigh 2,000 pounds, needs
to be bolted together, and that sort of thing.
For me, the garden was rather intense. I cant place why exactly.
There are many layers to the design: the architecture, the paths, the
integration with water, the greenery, and the various kinds of staging.
Sometimes its dramatic.
SB: Thats a very astute observation. One of the things that
makes the garden relatively unique is that it has all of these different
concepts built in. The architectural concept has no straight lines, everything
is curved. Its a real English countryside garden, in the style of
Capability Brown. We specifically wanted to get away from the Italian
Renaissance and the French formal look, which most sculpture gardens adopt
for some reason. So the walks and the concepts were designed with that
in mind. Another thing is that because New Orleans is built on an alluvial
plain, and there are no hills, the highest elevation is two feet above
the next highest elevation.
RP: Thats amazing, because it feels a bit hilly.
Chadwick, Two Sitting Figures, 197980. Bronze, 66 x
33 x 56 in. Photo: Judy Cooper
Thats because youre looking at the sides of the lagoon,
which is really only nine inches deep. In the garden, we inherited 100-year-old
pines and 200-year-old oak trees. We took out about 60 trees that were
diseased and put in 125. In another 25 years, theyll be gorgeous.
The sculptures are among them. We specifically wanted to have the three
bridges and the walks, to have different views of the sculptures. You
get various views, including the two in the lagoon itself. You see the
sculptures in a complete surround basis. And there are no
keep off the grass signs.
thing we knew was that if we didnt enclose it or fence it, we would
have vandalism problems, but the landscape architect designed it so you
wouldnt have views beyond the fence. Theres lots of shrubbery,
and the fence will be covered in five years. So itll be hidden from
exterior viewsexcept for certain cut-throughs in the shrubbery.
How is buying a sculpture different for you and Mrs. Besthoff now compared
to the first purchases?
SB: Well, of course, its much more expensive now than 30
years ago. Thats the big difference. We were not as knowledgeable
before. It was more on a coincidental basis. Now we think we know what
we are interested in. And we zero in on particular artists. Usually, we
work from that standpoint rather than use a scattershot approach.
RP: What things would you recommend to someone interested in serious
SB: First, you have to do a lot of readingthe trade press,
the brochuresand know enough to decide on your area of concentration.
And get to know the players in the fieldthe art dealers and the
museums, those who specialize in your particular field of interest.
RP: I understand that the last ISC conference held in New Orleans
in 1976 inspired you and Mrs. Besthoff in some way.
Pomodoro, Una Battaglia (A Battle), 1971. Bronze and stainless
steel, 149 x 149 x 141 in. Photo: Judy Cooper
We had just bought the K&B building a couple of years before. The
Noguchi at the time was inoperativeand I had to get it to work.
At that time, I had already commissioned the Rickey and I had some experience
with that. The ISC had a conference here, and I went. I enjoyed it, went
to several other meetings, and Ive been a member ever since.
RP: Do you think that the art world needs to be more business-like,
and, if so, how?
I could talk for days about that. The art world is definitely not the
business world. It operates on its own principles. And you have to recognize
that. With our exposure via the Contemporary Art Center, years ago, we
became well aware of that situation. Its not just the artists who
are usually not so business-like or organized, its the dealers as
Writers too, right?
SB: Well, I dont know if Id say that. We were talking
about artspeak earlier today. And thats one of the funniest things
have to learn. How to get through the artspeak.
What do you think needs to be done to more effectively encourage patronage
of modern/contemporary art in the U.S.?
I think art right now is having a real renaissance, in that more people
are interested in it, theyre talking about it, and museums are still
doing very well in terms of attendance. Its not classed with professional
football, but there is a surge in attendance. More public-interest shows.
Also, the art dealers could explain their art better. Thats important.
Etrog, Large Pulcinella, 196567. Bronze, 113 x 51.5
in. Photo: Judy Cooper
the key things not talked about in the art world are the pricing arrangements,
which are always confused. For example, the only national art market is
the auction house system, and that is the only way that anybody who is
interested can know what art is truly worth on a public basis. The art
galleries price their artists merchandise on the basis of what they
think it will bring. Frequently those prices have no relation to reality.
Theyre not what the artist would sell the work for in a perfect
market. The galleries are asking more, and sometimes theyre asking
a lot less than the public market. It is not an organized marketplace.
One interesting things is that pricing is different geographicallyin
New York, New Orleans, Europe, and across America.
RP: Any other ways that the modern/contemporary art market could
be more facilitating to collectors?
SB: As you know, the modern/contemporary art world is an elitist
operationat best. Therefore, it has to maintain its mystique as
an elitist operation. If it loses that, it becomes a commodity. When you
go into a gallery, and they ignore you, when they know you are interested;
thats part of the mystique of gallery shopping.
You have been ignored in galleries?
Everyone has been ignored in galleries.
RP: We actually like it sometimes, maybe.
SB: Thats true. But, of course, the New York galleries are
notorious for this.
RP: But in your view of art, you feel very differently. You dont
think of it as an elitist thing.
SB: Thats true. I dont, but people do. The public does.
RP: What goals would you and Mrs. Besthoff like to achieve over
the next five yearsand morewith the sculpture garden?
SB: Wed like to add a few pieces. I think we can add as many
as 25 pieces to the garden. My wife thinks we can add 10. Of course, anything
that wed do would have to be in conjunction with the museum.
RP: Do you have other collecting goals?
SB: I certainly am interested in doing something for the museum
on a continuing basis. Well have to find some categories and concepts
that they feel they would like to have. On a personal basis, I now have
a fairly empty plaza downstairs. And I can do pretty much anything.
Robert Preece, a resident of New Orleans in the mid-1980s, is now based
in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Hes a contributing editor for Sculpture
and focuses on contemporary art and design.
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