WASHINGTON — It was just a year ago that Stanley and Elyse Grinstein received a call from J. Carter Brown's secretary saying the director of the National Gallery of Art would be in Los Angeles and wanted to drop by for a drink. The Grinsteins knew full well what Brown was up to: He wanted to peruse the art on their walls--and he wanted a birthday present.
A few days after Brown came over to their funky old Brentwood home, the Grinsteins received a short note from him requesting that in honor of the National Gallery's 50th birthday, he wanted them to donate two extremely valuable prints by Vija Celmins. The Grinsteins, part owners of the Gemini Graphic Editions Ltd., publishing house of fine prints, had long ago donated its archives to the National Gallery. But this time the museum wanted something from the Grinsteins themselves, something personal.
"We had to think about our children, our grandchildren, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, history, our home and a whole lot of other things," Elyse Grinstein recalled of the couple's musings over what to let go. "We decided to give up one of the two Carter wanted. We thought it would be nice to have our family name in the nation's gallery. And nice, really nice."
And so the National Gallery got its first Vija Celmins drawing, an eerie view of an ocean surface.
And so Carter Brown and his minions swept across America on a treasure hunt for gifts from collectors like the Grinsteins as well as dealers, artists and any other American they thought might fill out the gallery's already bountiful collection.
The backbone of the National Gallery's hard sell to acquire new works for its birthday was a philosophy that originated with the late Andrew W. Mellon, who 50 years ago resisted etching his own name on the museum and instead fashioned the National Gallery not as one rich man's private showcase but one that belonged to the whole country.
"We support our local museums and wouldn't replace that in anyway," said Stanley Grinstein, expressing a common theme among donors to anniversary exhibition. "But there is something, well I guess the word is patriotic, about giving to the National Gallery."
In addition to the Celmins, the Grinsteins gave several other pieces through Gemini for the 50th exhibit. "They do things right here," said Elyse Grinstein.
This week the National Gallery unveiled an exhibition of the birthday haul: 337 of 550 gifts entitled "Art for the Nation: Gifts in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art." The collection runs an astonishing range--from the spectacularly classic Vincent Van Gogh painting of a spray of white roses to the thoroughly modern Claes Oldenburg painted bronze that looks like a profiterole.
That chocolate confection, in fact, was served for dessert Thursday night when the famous (Washington politicos including Supreme Court justices and Cabinet members) and the wealthy (the people responsible for the "presents" on the walls) got together in the East Building.
The Grinsteins and the Ganzes of Los Angeles were there. There were also Annenbergs, Stephensons, a Whitney, a Harriman, a Kress and, of course, plenty of Mellons, the museum's premier backers.
"The thing that touches me the most," said Paul Mellon, the octogenarian son of the museum's founder, "is how broad support for the gallery has become."
Carter Brown said when the gallery staff set out on their acquisition mission they approached people who already had strong ties to this museum as well as those in their hometowns. They drew up a list of pieces they wanted and began circling their prey at exclusive dinner parties and some such gatherings in every corner of the country.
In the end, 116 of the 164 contributors were first-time donors, and Brown said that part of the campaign made him particularly proud. 'All we were \o7 really \f7 asking for was one piece," said Brown. "It was a way of having everyone come to the party with a present."
But a taste of the intra-museum rivalries--and take-no-prisoners courting that goes on for the best collections--also came to the party Thursday in the form of Walter Annenberg and his wife, Leonore. The announcement by former ambassador to London earlier in the week that he was leaving his $1-billion collection of art to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art was the subject of many small-circle conversations--and sniping.
A bejeweled matron sniffed, off the record, of course, that "they could have waited at least week to make the announcement, not to spoil the nice party here." Andrew Robison, who is senior curator of prints, drawings and sculpture for the gallery, called it "dirty pool by the Met" to make the announcement in the middle of "our party."
Hilton Kramer, editor of New Criterion magazine and a well-know art critic, said Annenberg's choice should have come as no surprise to anybody because of all his prior associations with museums his one with the Met was the strongest.