Cynthia and W. Heywood Fralin, longtime supporters of the arts in the commonwealth of Virginia, have announced their intention to donate their collection of American art to the University of Virginia Art Museum. The 40-piece collection, which includes works by John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt and Robert Henri, is the largest single gift of art in the University's history.
To honor this major contribution, as well as Heywood Fralin's lifetime of service to the University, the Board of Visitors today voted to name the museum the "Fralin Museum of Art."
"We are extremely grateful to Heywood and Cynthia Fralin for their generous donation of American art," U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said. "This marks a transformative leap forward for our museum and a great milestone in the growth of the arts at U.Va."
Heywood Fralin, a 1962 alumnus of the College of Arts & Sciences and member of the Board of Visitors and former rector, is chairman of Roanoke-based Medical Facilities of America. Cynthia Fralin serves on several state boards, including the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Board of Trustees, chairing the Art Acquisition Committee. The Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust, of which Heywood Fralin is trustee, has also given significant American works to the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, including paintings by Sargent, Winslow Homer and Norman Rockwell.
Fralin was interested in art before the couple married in 1993, but collecting became a passion he and his wife shared. "Cynthia and I fell in love with the work of American artists painting around the turn of the 20th century," Fralin said. The collection is rich with works from the Ashcan school, featuring artists such as William Glackens, George Luks, John Sloan and Everett Shinn, who sought to capture gritty urban scenes to document modern times.
"We have expanded the collection beyond the Ashcan, but remain excited about American art telling the American story," Fralin said. "We hope that University of Virginia students and faculty will enjoy the examples of the story as much as we have."
Museum Director Bruce Boucher said the Fralins' gift enriches the museum's holdings in American art of the late 19th and 20th centuries. "Besides bolstering our collection across this period, the Fralin collection will serve as a notable teaching instrument for future generations of faculty and students," he said. "We are very grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Fralin for their generosity and continuing commitment to this museum and the University of Virginia."
The Fralins were drawn to the museum not only because of their deep ties to the University, but also because of the museum's teaching mission and its service and outreach to students, faculty and the general public. More than 2,000 students and 50 classes from 19 departments worked directly with objects in the museum's permanent collection in the past year. The museum's emphasis on objects-based research allows for interdisciplinary learning, which will be enhanced – particularly in American studies – by the Fralins' gift.
"More and more professors are using the museum as a teaching resource – coming in, creating assignments to view exhibitions, tying in art to the classroom. This is really the direction we're heading in," Jennifer Farrell, curator of the museum, said. "By working directly with pieces from this collection, students in American Studies, American history and American literature will gain a better knowledge of the art of the period and how it reflected social, political, economic and cultural themes and issues."
Elizabeth Hutton Turner, vice provost for the arts and a University Professor, cites the rich collection of American literature in U.Va.'s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library as an example of work that could be studied in tandem with the Fralin collection. "The collection increases exponentially our ability to study American art at the University," she said. "The art speaks to an important moment in the early 20th century, a time of great change."
Turner is especially excited about "Johnny Patton," a painting by Robert Henri (1865-1929) of a young, ragtag boy.
"Henri was a teacher and leader of progressive artists at the turn of the century who understood the pace of change and the demands for innovation in the time that he lived," she said. "He was also a gifted portraitist, but instead of painting the famous or the wealthy, he painted a boy from the streets. It was his choice of subjects and his teaching about the connections between art and life that inspired a whole generation of artists to embrace new subjects and new methods, and become modern, or as he said, 'sketchhunters … in and out of the city.'"
Many of Henri's followers had been newspaper artists. "These were painters who saw the province of art everywhere," Turner said. "Henri was an inspiring teacher because he believed that the 'art spirit' would allow everyone to see their way through a time of great change.”
For the Fralins, who live with the collection in their Roanoke home, the "art spirit" is still very much alive. "From their brushwork, to the layering of the colors or the drama of dark shadows, to the subject matter of each artists, I can almost feel the immediacy of the moment as they painted all those years ago," Cynthia Fralin said. "When viewing a painting, you can see it through the eyes of the artist. Art makes the spirit soar."
The Fralin collection will give the museum such a strong foundation in American art that it will be able to have an American collection permanently on view. "Students can return again and again," Turner said.
To best showcase the museum's growing collection, the Board of Visitors approved in 2009 the planning for a 20,000-square-foot, five-level addition to the west side of the Bayly Building, where the museum is housed. This new wing, for which fundraising is ongoing, will increase exhibition space by 64 percent and nearly double the programming space, including a dedicated education resource room, two signature galleries and a meeting space for seminars and classes.
The Fralins are keenly aware of the museum's goals. "With each purchase, Heywood always strove to acquire museum-quality paintings," Cynthia Fralin said. "He had a vision of one day sharing his treasures with others and that is what he wants to do through this gift to the University of Virginia."
"I feel that the University is really headed in the right direction," Heywood Fralin said. "This was an opportunity to do something for the University that would be meaningful. The direction of the museum is going to depend on future donations and philanthropic interests. I'm hoping that this gift can be a catalyst to encourage others to give to the museum, and to the University."
– by Molly Minturn