Crafting a Collection • The Nob Hill Gazette

Dorothy Saxe among a wall hanging by Robert Hudson, who pioneered the West Coast assemblage movement; gure by the late Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz; and sculpture by Deborah Butter eld, who crafts horse forms from found objects. | Photo courtesy of Craig Lee / The Examiner.

Dorothy Saxe surrounds herself with art that spans media – from glass to wood to metal – with not a painting in sight.

If the old adage that “every picture tells a story” is true, so too does every object. A recent visit with collector Dorothy Saxe in her Menlo Park home is not only a visual feast, but an opportunity to hear about travels and experiences that resulted in an assemblage of over 600 works of art, some of which occupy her spacious, light-filled residence.

Over several decades, she and her husband, George, who passed away in 2010, amassed a renowned collection of works in glass, clay, wood, fiber and metal. Along the way, they also managed to elevate the media of contemporary craft to the stature of fine art, thanks to their generous gifts to museums in California and elsewhere in the country.

Bay Area residents may be most familiar with the Saxes’ gift to the de Young Museum in 1998: 223 objects by 132 artists that are on permanent display as the Dorothy & George Saxe Collection of Contemporary Craft.

Beth Lipman’s “Candlesticks, Books, Flowers, and Fruit” (2010), made of brown glass and painted wood; 59 by 59 by 40 inches. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, foundation purchase, George and Dorothy Saxe Endowment Fund and Gift of Dorothy R. Saxe in memory of John E. Buchanan Jr., 2012. | Photo courtesy of © Beth Lipman with Photograph by Randy Dodson © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

“Dorothy Saxe and her late husband George are nationally known for forming an exceptional studio craft collection distinguished both by its breadth and depth,” says Timothy Anglin Burgardsenior curator and curator in charge of American art for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and author of the exhibition catalog The Art of Craft: Contemporary Works from the Saxe Collection. “Their transformative gifts to the museums have helped to break down the barriers that traditionally separated fine art and studio craft in American museums.”

When the Saxes began collecting in 1981, however, handcrafted objects were still regarded as too decorative to be included in the world of art galleries and museums. Inspired by glass objects they had seen in a catalog by the Corning Museum of Glass in New York, they determined that they would acquire only museum-quality artworks. “Of course,” says Saxe, 96, with a laugh, “we didn’t really know what ‘museum quality’ meant.” She goes on to explain that back then, the studio art craft world was much smaller. She recalls that “everyone was very friendly and approachable. We could get off an airplane in the morning and call an artist and ask if we could visit his or her studio in the afternoon and they would say ‘yes.’ ”

“Their transformative gifts to the museums have helped break down the barriers that traditionally separated fine art and studio craft.” – Timothy Anglin Burgard

By undertaking these studio visits, along with attending gallery and museum exhibitions and craft conferences, the Saxes began to hone their collecting tastes and goals. They did not take classes or use an art adviser but instead relied upon their own instincts. “Some of the artists we have collected have disappeared from the scene, while others went on to become very successful,” she says.

Dorothy Saxe with one of California artist and professor Robert Arneson’s self-portrait busts. His work reflects one of her favorite elements of sculpture: the ability to “see the hand work of the artist,” she says. | Photo courtesy of Craig Lee / The Examiner.

And did they always agree on art acquisitions? “I would say 99 times out of 100,” Saxe says. Their approach when going to exhibitions was to each go in a different direction and then confer at the end. She smiles at the memory of the one time they could not agree on a ceramic vessel – the dark- or the light-colored one – “and so we bought them both!”

What began with works made of glass gradually expanded to other materials, but always with an intent to eventually gift the art to an institution. Saxe agrees with the notion that collectors are really stewards, safeguarding art for future generations, which raises the question: How did the Saxes deal with collecting and displaying glass while living in the earthquake-prone Bay Area? (The glass collection remains in her Russian Hill condominium.) She acknowledges that they did suffer the loss of 14 pieces in the 1989 quake. But in the spirit of making the best of the situation, they invited Puget Sound– based artist Richard Marquis to create a new, large-scale sculpture from the shards of the broken works. “It’s quite a fabulous piece,” Saxe notes.

Stephen De Staebler’s “Pointing Figure Column” (1985), made of stoneware, porcelain and oxides; 96 by 15.25 by 21 inches. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, partial gift of Dorothy and George Saxe to the Fine Arts Museums Foundation, 2002. | Photo courtesy of © The Estate Of Stephen De Staebler.

In her Menlo Park home, art can be seen on virtually every surface, from floors to tables. Even tables and chairs are handcrafted by a variety of artisans. What you won’t see are paintings. “We just never collected them,” says Saxe, “and we didn’t need them.” She points out a colorful textile of linen, horsehair and gesso hanging over the fireplace by Olga de Amaralthe Colombian artist who is still creating at the age of 90, and a paper piece by Czech-born artist Neda Al-Hilali. “We started out with the idea to collect American crafts but enlarged our scope to be international.”

Fine examples of some of the most important artists working in ceramics are on view in the living and family rooms. There are the bold, ochrehued vessels by Peter Voulkos and the wildly colorful vases of Betty Woodman. An unusually bright Manuel Neri figure stands in a corner, and there are several delightful trompe l’oeil pieces by Richard Shaw, who taught ceramics at UC Berkeley and the San Francisco Art Institute. Several busts by California Funk artist and longtime UC Davis professor Robert Arneson reflect his humorous approach to self-portraiture, amazingly created in clay. “I like art where you can really see the hand work of the artist,” says Saxe.

The downstairs rooms are dedicated to works in wood and basketry. A large case with glass shelves holds a fantastic collection of wood-turned bowls by Berkeley artist Bob Stocksdale. They are small, beautifully formed and intricately grained. Saxe fondly remembers that “whenever George would need an art fix, he would buy a bowl. We called them ‘God’s art.’ ”Close by are San Francisco – born Kay Sekimachi‘s baskets, delicately woven using handmade papers and linen threads. (Stocksdale and Sekimachi were married for more than 30 years, until his death in 2003.)

The Saxes had a long and rewarding relationship with Washington-based glass innovator Dale Chihuly, who they respected for “breaking the boundaries” associated with glassblowing. When asked to relate one of her most rewarding and enjoyable collecting experiences, Saxe recounts traveling to Venice, Italy, in 1996 for Chihuly’s large-scale installation there. “We rented a palazzo and held a big party for Dale – it was his guest list,” she remembers fondly, describing the entire week as “a magical experience.”

Was there a particular work that got away? She is quick to respond, “Not really, you block those things out. It’s like a streetcar – if you miss one, another will come along. ”

What would she advise people who are beginning their collecting journey? “Look! Go to studios, museums and galleries and educate yourself. ”

“We could get off an airplane in the morning and call an artist and ask if we could visit his or her studio in the afternoon and they would say ‘yes.’” – Dorothy Saxe

Though Saxe no longer collects, she remains active in various art-related philanthropies, including the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which holds the annual Dorothy Saxe Invitational, endowed by George in 2009 as a tribute to his wife.

Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit” (2008), mixed media including beaded and sequined garments, metal and mannequin; 100 by 25 by 14 inches. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Dorothy and George Saxe to the Fine Arts Museums Foundation, 2020. | Photo courtesy of © Nick Cave. Courtesy Of The Artist And Jack Shainman Gallery.

Younger generations of the Saxe family are following the couple’s lead in supporting the CJM. “The Contemporary Jewish Committee combines two things that I care deeply about: Judaism and the arts,” says grandson Dave Saxe, who often accompanies his grandmother to FAMSF donor events. The real estate investor currently chairs the CJM’s Development Committee and sits on its Board of Trustees.

“In fact,” he continues, “my grandmother serves on my committee, which is such a treat and a unique experience that I don’t take lightly. My passion for the arts can be directly tied back to the exposure to the arts that my grandparents provided to me at a very young age. For as long as I can remember, they took me to art museums, art schools, art fairs and art galleries. … Now that I have my own place in San Francisco, I have started collecting. ”

Meanwhile, Dorothy Saxe is still keeping up with new trends and directions in the craft world. “There is so much more innovative technology now in the medium of glass, far beyond glassblowing. When I see that, I do miss it. ”

While Saxe clearly enjoys the art that surrounds her, she is also adamant that it is not really about the objects themselves. “As I have often mentioned,” she says, “we were so enriched by the experience of collecting, the travels, the people we’ve met – it totally changed our lives, so much for the better.”

Leave a Comment