Art History

San Antonio collectors support women artists with the Bennett Prize and Muskegon Museum Gift | Pro Club Bd

For Steven Alan Bennett, there is a sure sign that someone has become a true art collector.

“You don’t become a collector until you have more art than walls,” said Bennett, 69, who resigned as USAA’s chief legal officer in 2015. “And if that doesn’t stop you, then you really are a collector.”

Bennett speaks from experience. He and his wife Elaine Melotti Schmidt have collected around 200 paintings, all by women artists. Focused on figurative work, her collection includes works by artists who paint today, as well as historical figures such as 19th-century portraitist Sarah Miriam Peale and noted abstract expressionist Agnes Martin, who died in 2004.

“We started with just contemporary imagery and we felt it added historical women to the collection, and it did,” said Schmidt, 68, a retired school principal and early childhood development expert. “People pay more attention to it, and that helps the people who are painting now.”

Bennett and Schmidt made sure the collection stayed together after they left. It goes to the Muskegon Museum of Art in Muskegon, Michigan. They also gave the museum $1.5 million for a new wing that will include a gallery for women artists.

The couple’s advocacy for women artists extends beyond their personal collection. They also created the Bennett Prize for Women Figurative Realist Painters, which was awarded for the first time in 2019. They are collaborating with the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Muskegon Museum on the project.

“We started meeting female artists and realized they were having such a hard time making a living that we created an award,” Bennett said.

The Muskegon Museum of Art will receive some of the couple’s work when the new wing is completed. It can also borrow anything from the collection for exhibitions. The remainder will go to the museum after the deaths of both collectors, although there is a stipulation that would allow this to happen sooner.

“It’s very difficult to give away a collection as a whole,” said Bennett. “Museums want to pick one or two, but they don’t care about the rest. We were interested in keeping the best paintings intact and they were willing to do so.”

Signing the agreement does not mean you are done with the art purchase.

“We will continue to collect paintings and add to the collection because we love doing it,” Bennett said. “We have fun.”

The couple make their own decisions about what they want to buy — they have no buyers or advisors, though they’ve been collecting long enough that people in the art world often let them know about works they might be interested in buying.

Her collection is split between her San Antonio and Chicago homes. There are also some paintings hidden in a storage unit. From time to time, they rotate the pieces, Schmidt said, and make decisions together about what to hang and where to hang it. The only exception is their offices – each of them curating these spaces for themselves.

Works currently on display at her elegant San Antonio home include pieces by Peale and Martin, as well as “Elpis,” a painting by New York artist Alyssa Monks depicting a woman peering out through an otherworldly veil hanging over her bed; and “Dirty Laundry,” a realistic self-portrait by Scottish artist Katie O’Hagan, in which she stands naked in the middle of a lonely road, crumpled clothes in her arms and a confused expression on her face. It hangs in the dining room alongside portraits of the artist’s daughters.

“Dirty Laundry” is also in the background of a portrait painted by O’Hagan of Bennett and Schmidt that hangs in the main hallway, “so it’s a self-portrait of a self-portrait,” Bennett joked.

Behind “Dirty Laundry” lies a painful story.

“She was at our house and told us that the dirty laundry, that’s her wedding dress, and her first husband’s tuxedo, and he was cheating on her with her best friend,” Schmidt said. “And everyone in this little town knew it except her, and when she found out she felt like she was standing naked with her dirty laundry in the middle of this little town. Then suddenly the painting had a lot more meaning.

“That’s the fun part of collecting, especially with a contemporary artist, you might ask, what were you thinking?”

Bennett studied art history as an undergraduate, and that knowledge helps them make decisions. They have also developed their own sense of what might work in the collection over time. Their tastes don’t match perfectly, so they cluster in the middle where the Venn diagram of their preferences meets. They both respond to work with a strong narrative and also seek quality execution.

“I like paintings with panache, it’s a painting that you walk into the room and that demands that you look at it,” he said.

A painting by Seattle artist Aleah Chapin on display in her home definitely lives up to that standard. It is a large realistic painting of a group of nude women, most of them with silver hair, standing in a row to the side, arms wrapped around one another. A woman crawls beneath them.

“Children always have many questions” about the picture, said Schmidt.

Bennett and Schmidt became involved with the Muskegon Museum when trying to get their art prize off the ground.

Her deal with the museum ensures that female artists will continue to benefit from her support in the future. It asks the museum to keep part of the collection forever. They can sell another part after 50 years, and there is a third group that they can do with as they please. The money from each sale must be used to buy art made by women, Schmidt said.

The Bennett Prize is awarded every two years.

“It gives the winner a cash prize of $50,000 to paint for two years, and then her work will be featured in the next installment in a solo exhibition that runs concurrently with the finalists’ exhibition,” said Bennett.

Around 700 women submitted work for the 2023 exhibition, which opens at Muskegon Museum in May and will then go on tour.

None of the Bennett Prize exhibits traveled to San Antonio. The show doesn’t exactly fit into the programming of the San Antonio Museum of Art or the McNay Art Museum, Bennett said.

“We’d love for the Bennett Prize show to come here, but I don’t think we’re going to hold our breath and wait for someone from the local community to take it on,” he said.

Bennett and Schmidt, who met at Eharmony 15 years ago and have been married for eight years, devote most of their energies to fundraising and philanthropy, including supporting a girls’ orphanage in Kenya.

“None of us consider ourselves retired because we’re full-time with the philanthropy, the art award, and the art collection,” Bennett said.

Some collectors, he said, focus on works they believe will appreciate in value over time in order to eventually sell them. It doesn’t matter to her.

“Some of the things we bought went up in value, but that’s not why we bought them,” he said. “And we’ve never sold a painting. This is the ‘Hotel California’ – if you are a painting you can check in, but you can never leave.” | Twitter: @DeborahMartinEN

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