Banker, art patron, philanthropist, and motivated mover-and-shaker in so many roles, R. Crosby Kemper Jr. left a lasting legacy.
In the art world, he was known as an astute collector who funded a host of institutions, served on several museum boards, and established the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art with wife, Bebe. For nearly six decades, he avidly collected art, including noted "greats" from Corot to Monet, American masters such as Sargent, Warhol, and Calder, to more recent artists like Louise Bourgeois, Wayne Thiebaud, and Dale Chihuly.
A native and resident of Kansas City, Mo., Kemper passed away in Indian Wells, Calif., on January 2 at age 86.
An imposing 6-foot-seven-inches tall and with a booming voice, Kemper had an undeniable presence. He was a self-described maverick and knew how to propel things forward, even with daunting opposition. He applied his passion to supporting the arts, civic and cultural institutions, agriculture, education, and more.
“He was kind of an instinctive futurist in seeing that these things all had an abiding value,” said retired Kansas City Southern executive Landon Rowland to the Kansas City Star. “You wonder whether anyone can follow in his footsteps.”
Kemper served as a commissioner of the National Museum of American Art, and both Crosby and Bebe were involved as trustees on several art institution boards including the Whitney Museum National Committee, the Addison Gallery at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. The couple gave from their personal collections and purchased works specifically for these museum collections and others, among them, the renamed Albrecht-Kemper Museum.
To the Nelson-Atkins, the Kempers gave such key works as John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Cecil Wade, Andrew Wyeth's Battleground, and Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives by Frederic Edwin Church.
The Kempers' focus together was largely on modern and living artists such as Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein and Helen Frankenthaler although they pursued an historical survey of art with paintings by the likes of Rubens and Fragonard, and American icons such as Fitz Henry Lane, Edward Hopper, Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, and many others.
Kemper was a personal friend of mine, and on several occasions he generously doled out advice that guided my course of work in the art field. His warm demeanor and wide smile were easy to come by on Cape Cod, where he often summered with family in an oceanfront home in Chatham near my own.
Memorably, we spoke about his personal collecting experiences for a magazine article that I wrote nearly a decade ago titled "The Artful Banker." He insisted that he collected art not for status or investment, but for the "fun of storytelling" and to be surrounded by a "beautiful environment."
His enthusiasm for American art was undaunted by a few missteps in collecting, One incident that brought particular ire was a purchase of two dozen watercolors by Georgia O'Keeffe that turned out to be fake. The gallery eventually refunded Kemper $5 million.
Mostly, his was a happy pursuit of the "best" and "emerging" artists, in decisions most often made with his artist-wife, Bebe, for her special "eye." It was no surprise one evening when he sauntered into a New York gallery's summer exhibition on Nantucket with Bebe and before I had even finished a "hello" the couple had zoomed in on and purchased a key work by Jamie Wyeth, a close friend of theirs.
Kemper recalled that on visits to the Wyeth artist-family retreats in Maine, they dined at the Olsen homestead, now a museum. (Christina Olsen, the Wyeths’ neighbor, posed for Andrew’s famous painting Christina’s World). And the Kempers discovered the Wyeth clans’ macabre sense of humor when they were led to picnic among the headstones of the Olsen family graveyard.
The Wyeth family is just one of the close associations with some of America’s leading artists that the couple made. Years ago, Kemper also shared a warm friendship with Thomas Hart Benton, the painter of folklore and everyday life in the 1910s to 1930s, who also hailed from Kansas City. The two had a multidimensional bond of patron and artist; they even vacationed together on the isle of Martha’s Vineyard. Kemper ultimately collected several works by Benton and, after the artist’s death, his bank became the coexecutor and cotrustee of Benton’s estate.
Among the stories detailed in R. Crosby Kemper’s self-published book "Banking on Art: Fifty Years of Collecting" (2000), is a trip to the South with daughter Sheila, when Crosby discovered the now-infamous Savannah, Georgia, dealer James Williams, who “had an uncanny ability to ferret out fine portraits.” On a later visit, the high-spirited Williams invited Crosby to his third-floor salon for martinis and a game of craps. He tempted the collector with a John Singer Sargent study for a figure in the Boston Library’s mural if he won. Although an inexperienced gambler, Crosby accepted the challenge and, in a stroke of luck, drove home with the Sargent. Alas, on the retelling of his story to Bebe, he was urged to return the painting, then estimated to be worth $400,000. “She apparently didn’t think it right to gamble for paintings,” he says.
Later, Bebe gave Crosby a copy of the best-selling murder-mystery Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil for its descriptive Savannah setting. Little did she realize that its homicidal main character was based on Williams (who was acquitted for the crime of killing his apprentice).
Kemper went on to acquire a Sargent masterpiece, the artist's first commissioned portrait in London after the Madame X scandal caused him to leave France. He bought Mrs. Cecil Wade for $1.275 million, now a seeming bargain but a good sum at the time, and as was his way, he gifted the work to the Nelson-Atkins.
In Crosby Kemper's words: “the future of civilized life is enhanced by the good influence we have on other people and in the arts; all else is immaterial.”