Berkshire Collectors Jay and Jane Braus

Exhibition at the Berkshire Museum Thorugh October 11

By: - Jul 07, 2011

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Collectors’ Choice: Selections from the Jane and Jay Braus Collection
The Berkshire Museum
Pittsfield, Mass.
May 21 through October 11.

At the Berkshire Museum, in Pittsfield, Mass. expect the unexpected.

This summer that equates to the special exhibition Geckos  June 4 – September 18, 2011. The museum’s PR promotes the experience of “Bulging eyes, sticky toepads, incredible night vision and disposable body parts-welcome to a gecko's world!”

For this unrepentantly family oriented mongrel of a museum the eccentric mix includes, nature with a basement aquarium, plaster casts of classical sculptures, a truly global collection of artifiacts represting an ersaz Victorian attic or flea market, and, oh by the way, the fine arts from 19th century Hudson River Landscapes to contemporary art.

Founded a hundred or so years ago, who’s counting, the initial intention was to provide a little bit of everything for Berkshire residents. Folks didn’t travel much back in the day. With the exception of the owners of the many factories in a region noted for manufacturing. When on their grand tours it was customary to bring back souvenirs. A selection of which ended up in the collection of the museum.

There are good and bad aspects to that legacy. On the plus side it means that with its mind boggling diversity the museum is a formidable teaching institution. It has extensive educational programming with the region’s schools. During the dead of winter, or a rainy summer day, it’s a great family destination with tons of show and tell for the toddlers.

The down side of the equation is that it suffers from an identity crisis particularly in the fine arts. It is not the top priority. But the museum would argue, indeed they have, that the fine arts are well covered by the nearby Norman Rockwell Museum, The Clark Art Institute, Williams College Museum of Art, and Mass MoCA.

The “encyclopedic” Berkshire Museum opts not to compete with those world class fine arts museums. But it also offers fine arts exhibitions which are often a bit muddled and geared toward the general audience. The museum scored big time this spring with M.C. Escher: Seeing the Unseen which was well reviewed and enthusiastically attended.

This summer, through October 11, the museum is featuring Collectors’ Choice: Selections from the Jane and Jay Braus Collection. There are indeed outstanding works that are rarely seen in the Berkshires. But it is so all over the map, here’s that word again, “eclectic” that one must view the installation quite selectively. While there are perfect gems to be discovered many of the artists are unknown and destined to remain that way.

The project was initiated by former director, Stuart Chase, and has been installed by the current, acting director, Maria Mingalone. It is usual for museums to court collectors and to organize exhibitions with the expectation of future donations and bequests.

When we met with Jay and Jane Braus to discuss the installation that question was asked. While they have already donated six choice works to the museum they have other plans. Including an interest in museums in Boca Raton and Palm Beach where they live for half of the year. They also have four children.

During an earlier period they acquired a major collection of Abstract Expressionists including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem deKooning. The work was quite affordable when they formed that first collection. It was later sold along with a large house in Larchmont, New York, before they downscaled to Florida with a summer home in the Berkshires.

What follows is a conversation with the collectors.  

Charles Giuliano Where do you live in the Berkshires?

Jay We live on Iceland Road Stockbridge. We have been there for 30 years. This art is from Florida where we live in the winter Boca Raton.

CG How did you get it here?

Jane  We had DAX Direct Art Express handle the shipping.

CG The work strikes me as eclectic.

Jay We buy what we like. What we like is what appeals to us. We like color. When I moved to Florida, 1985 I sold all my pictures. Everything.

Jane We lived in Larchmont and had a beautiful collection.

Jay I had a wonderful collection and started it  about 1960. I decided they were much too valuable to send to Florida. So I gave them to Hirshler and Adler to sell and they did. That was started with Jackson Pollock. A Rothko.

Jane He had a Marsden Hartley.

Jay The Pollock was a large black and white. We had everyone you could possibly imagine.

Jane Stuart Davis.

CG Today works by those artists are very expensive. What were prices like when you started collecting in the 1960s?

Jay They were very modest when I started.

CG $100,000?

Jay No never anything like that.

CG Less?

Jay Much much less.  I did a lot of business with a fellow named Andy Crispo. He came to dinner at our house. He was later involved in a murder and went to jail actually. My parents and grand parents were art dealers. My grandmother had an art gallery up here in 1914 and 1915.

Jane She came up for the summer in Lenox. In the first collection we had a lot of abstract expressionists. We had a Stuart Davis which we donated to the Metropolitan Museum.

Jay A big one. We had a Marsden Hartley, gorgeous, a New Mexico landscape. There was also that big one of the Telephone Company that I didn’t want to get rid of. Who was it?

CG Sounds like Charles Sheeler.

Jane That’s exactly right.  I begged Jay to keep it and I’ll never forgive him.

CG Was the reason that you sold works for their value or their scale? With the exception of the paintings by Sam Francis most of the works on view here seem to be apartment sized. You were down sizing from a large house to a condominium.

Jane We had no huge paintings. The Henry Moore is from that time.

CG What were the ground rules for works that you held onto?

Jane Not much of this was kept. This is all new except for the Ratner. And the Agam.

CG So you sold a collection and started a new one?

Jane Exactly. We went to Florida with very little. But a collector is a collector. We started to go out again and we started to collect again.

CG Where were you looking?

Jane Right near us was an area called The Gallery Center with several terrific galleries. One of which we became friendly with and bought quite a few things with.

CG What is your passion for collecting?

Jane We’re such collectors that we have in our house about 400 British biscuit tins. We bought one at an antique shop and there you go. It’s more fun when you’re looking for something.

Jay We have the best British biscuit tin collection in the United States I believe.

Jane You mentioned Grandma Moses. When my husband bought it I said it doesn’t really fit in with our collection. But it is so typical of the area here. It’s the Hoosic. I love the look of it so I went along. What do you think of the Andrew Wyeth? We love that picture. He was 21-years-old when he did that picture. It’s the coast of Maine and completely different from what he does today.

CG It’s good to see some old friends like the Ilya Bolotowsky. I knew him in New York.

Jane He died tragically. He fell down an elevator shaft.

Jay Or he was pushed.

Jane We don’t know.  For me the unifying thing in the collection is the color. I love the color of this whole show.

CG It’s always a pleasure to see Philip Evergood.

Jane We love that picture. Look at the color. That’s his wife at the cash register. Or the Howard Kantovitz ("Lunch at Ratners") people see that and say that looks like Jack Webb or the comedian from some TV show.

CG The Louis Guglielmi is from the American Surrealist movement.

Jay She was on Lexington Avenue waiting to have a baby. That’s the baby. When she died she gave it to her son. That was her son. He ran out of money and we bought it.

Jane From the gallery. It was in the Surrealist show in Florida. You’re right. I didn’t exactly see the surrealism.

CG Joseph Hirsch you don’t see his work very often.

Jane There’s an interesting story about it. We loaned it to Kent State where we both went.  They had an exhibit and they put it on the cover of the catalogue. They sent it out and he got one. He wrote to us and said “Please send me the picture. I have to correct it.” This picture is a collage. The white is because it shrank. You see it’s a collage but we like the white. So we didn’t send it to him and he died a couple of years later.

This is the latest picture we’ve bought. It’s by Daniel Hauben who lives in the Bronx.

Jay I went to school at DeWitt Clinton and I had to commute from down town in the middle of Manhattan. At this station you can see the city.

Jane Every time you look at it you’ll see something different.

CG That’s a terrific Alex Katz.

Jane It’s always been at our front door.

CG You don’t seem to have locked into any particular period or style. Like the Joseph Stella. He was an important artist of his generation.

Jane You know that’s Frank Stella’s uncle. He did the “Brooklyn Bridge” which is such a beautiful picture.

Jay At this point in my collecting I don’t buy any more. I’m too old.

Jane I’ve heard that before.

Jay If you confine your collecting to a certain short period or what’s going on. You’re really out of the art world. For me, when I come home at night I look at the Nickson and just love it.

Jane A picture by him is in the Metropolitan. He is just a terrific guy. This picture was in one of the art magazines but the color was so bad. And we love the Nancy Graves.

CG What about the Pousette-Dart?

Jane It can of course be hung the other way. We love it. It was used for the card for the museum exhibition. Maria (Mingalone) picked it out.

CG In organizing this show who approached whom?

Jane Stuart (Chase, former director of the Berkshire Museum). He came to Florida. He looked at loads of pictures and told us what he would like to see in the museum. Of course when it came to doing it we picked what we wanted.

CG I was told that you are giving some of the work to the museum.

Jane No we are not giving it to the museum. We’re loaning it.

CG Do you have plans for the collection?

Jane We have four children and they’ve indicated what they would like. We have given six things. A Frankenthaler and a George Rickey sculpture.

Maria Mingalone They have given more than half a dozen major pieces.

CG So this will go to the children.

Jane No. They’ve each indicated a picture or two that they like. The rest probably they will sell. This museum doesn’t have room for this collection. We are also active in the Boca Raton Museum in Florida. And the Norton is a museum which is close to us. That’s a very good museum.

CG How do you feel about having this exhibition?

Jane We’re thrilled. It’s so different to see them displayed this way. Maria did such a good job. We feel really good about it.

MM It was a difficult show to hang. To make it come together. The Nancy Graves I knew was one of Jane’s favorite pieces and the Sam Francis was one of Jay’s favorite pieces. So there was some strategy behind the thinking of how to lay it out.

Jay At home we have a big Gilbert and George but it was too complicated to take apart and rehang.

Jane We have that hanging by Faith Ringold.

Jay It’s too big. Huge. There are new artists who come along every day. You need time to appreciate them. But a lot of things I think you can put in the trash can.

CG From an educational point of view the exhibition is eclectic but there is a lot of work that a Berkshire audience never gets to see. I often refer to the Berkshire Museum as a mongrel with a bit of this and a bit of that. So you might say this is a mongrel show for a mongrel museum.

MM I’m not sure I like the adjective.  We say it’s encyclopedic. We say it’s eclectic.

CG I like mongrel.

Jane What do you think of the flowers? (A large realist rendering of a bouquet.)

CG Not much. It’s not my sensibility.

Jane We enjoy it. We don’t buy pictures thinking it will go up in value. We buy pictures we like.

CG Do you think of locations in your home about where to put something which you plan to buy?

Jane As someone said “If there’s room in your heart there’s room in your house.” But we’ve run out of room.

Jay Believe it or not we sent all this work here and we have already filled the walls back home.

Jane Not really filled. But we put pictures up because we like to look at pictures.