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A Passion Shared

How love, money and chance encounters led to a landmark gift for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.


Most of life is spent searching, for purpose, treasure, meaning, love. Sometimes you don't know what you're seeking until you find it.

James W. McGlothlin, one of Virginia's wealthiest men, felt most of his life was guided by instinct. It seemed to work for him in the business world. Growing up in Grundy, almost into West Virginia territory, he started building empires at age 9, increasing his 15-customer paper route to more than 100 in two weeks.

After earning his bachelor's and law degrees at William and Mary, he worked as a lawyer and built a restaurant business. Then in 1970 he and six friends and family members decided to invest in coal properties. That business is now The United Co., of which McGlothlin is chairman and chief executive. He says annual revenues are between $500 million and $600 million.

To be certain, McGlothin found his fortune. Last year, Virginia Business magazine roughly estimated that he and his two brothers, along with their father, Woodrow W. McGlothlin, together were worth at least $350 million.

As for finding lasting love, Jim McGlothlin's instincts hadn't been so quick to help. Two marriages failed. Then he attended a dinner party 15 years ago and set his eyes upon a Leesburg native named Frances Verkuil.

"Instant chemistry," he says.

Fran's first husband was former William and Mary president Paul Verkuil. When she met Jim at the dinner party, things clicked.

"They're very attractive as a couple — and they're crazy about each other," says Pam Reynolds, a friend who has known them for at least 12 years. "And when you're in their company you just don't have a better time."

After a courtship, they married in 1997.

"We have an incredible life together," says Jim McGlothlin, who turns 65 next month. "We are so blessed."

And who could have known that the ramifications of that chance meeting at a dinner party would result in more than a wedding. That providential encounter sparked a series of events and connections that eventually led to another blessing — for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. On Monday the VMFA announced what it called a "landmark" gift from the McGlothlins worth well over $140 million, and growing.

The genre of American art — work created in this country during the 19th and 20th centuries — should be the bread and butter of an American museum, says VMFA Director Michael Brand. It includes such expressionists as Childe Hassam and William Merritt Chase, realists like Robert Henri, John Sloan and Everett Shinn, and the likes of John Singer Sargent, George Wesley Bellows and James McNeill Whistler.

Such work can be difficult to find because museums already have acquired many of the major works. And it's not a huge field, Brand says, especially when the focus is on the realists and expressionists of American art. As a result, prices have skyrocketed in the last decade. "Ten years ago a really good painting was probably $1 million, $2 million, $3 million," Brand says. "Now it's 7, 8, 9, 10, 12."

And how about more than $35 million? Collector and Wal-Mart heiress Alice L. Walton paid that much in a silent auction last week for Asher B. Durand's "Kindred Spirits," acquiring it from the New York Public Library, the New York Times reported.

There are other challenges in acquiring American art for a museum like the VMFA. Its structure that comes from being a state agency and an institution run by a board of trustees slows down the acquisition process, handicapping it against private investors who can make snap decisions at auctions.

Despite the hurdles, Brand has been adamant since he interviewed for his job in 2000 that the VMFA bolster its American art collection. That would be a key to its future success, he says. "You can have all the PR hype, you can design outrageous buildings, but what it ultimately comes down to" is a museum's collection, Brand says. "Wherever you live there are a number of things you need to collect. One is the contemporary art of your time and also your own culture. ... American art is an area we want to shine in."

American art is also a good avenue for educating children and other newcomers to art, Brand says, because it's immediately understandable. "Whether it's the American landscape or a street scene in New York City," he says, it's "something they can grasp without having to know all the mythology or stories or iconography. So it's a great way of getting a more immediate connection to the work."

It was also American art that first intrigued the McGlothlins.

Shortly after their marriage in 1997, Fran McGlothlin learned about an American art auction scheduled at Southeby's in New York. She asked her husband to go, hoping that art would become a mutual passion — something they could enjoy into their 90s. "I can see us toddling around museums even then," she says.

Her husband wasn't so enthusiastic. "Frankly, I hadn't spent 30 seconds thinking about any type of art — much less American art," he says. But Fran McGlothlin figured that if nothing else, her businessman husband would be engaged by "the art of the deal."

They attended the auction, and she discovered "Listening Boy," a compelling, 24- by 20-inch oil painting of an Irish child by Cincinnati-born artist Robert Henri.

"And with much persuasion," Jim McGlothlin says, "she got me to bid on it." He won with an offer of $160,000, he says. "And I was hooked." The painting, which they keep in their Naples, Fla., home, was his Christmas present to his wife.

Eventually, "we saw that one painting just wouldn't do the job," Jim McGlothlin says. "Our passion certainly developed, and our knowledge developed." Instead of buying what looked good on the walls, he says, they started to seek out and "buy things that made a difference" — meaning work from just the right period, from just the right artist, or work that was rare.

Searching for art and building their collection became an infatuation for the McGlothlins — not just for their appreciation of the work, but for the thrill of the hunt. "It's almost a full-time job," Fran McGlothlin says of staying up-to-date on auctions, researching artists and keeping up with what is coming to market.

Treasured art is fleeting. "It takes a long time to realize," Jim McGlothlin says, "this is something I'm not going to be able to get again." Take Walton's buy last week of the Durand painting, he says as an example. "Nobody's ever going to have that again in their lifetime."

That's one of the reasons the adrenaline flows at auctions. Early in their collecting career, the McGlothlins had their heart set on a piece by Martin Johnson Heade called "Two Magnolias and a Bud on Teal Velvet." Someone had paid $20 for it at a Wisconsin tag sale. It sold for about $1 million at auction in 2000. When it came up again for auction, the McGlothlins showed up ready to bid. But a dealer won out. "The difficult thing was accepting the loss," Fran McGlothlin says, "and then sucking it up, so to speak." In the end, the couple agreed to buy the painting from the dealer — for a huge markup. "But we did get the picture," she says. Today they consider it a milestone in their collecting.

Wealth, culture and connections put you in certain circles. The McGlothlins were no different and were well-known in the worlds of business, art and politics. In addition to building his own company, Jim McGlothlin had served as a director on the board of CSX Corp. and Basset Furniture Industries Inc. He also served on the Virginia Business Higher Education Council. His wife had been asked about her interest in joining the VMFA as a trustee, but had yet to accept.

Then in December 1997, still young collectors and newlyweds, the McGlothlins met more seasoned art lovers and VMFA benefactors — Frances and Sydney Lewis.

It was a medically inspired coincidence. Jim McGlothlin had to have back surgery, spending 18 days, including Christmas, at MCV Hospital. Down the hall, in a private and well-appointed Gumenick suite, Sydney Lewis was hospitalized too. The two men shared a physician, the chairman of neurosurgery at MCV.

The couples had heard of each other. And in the midst of the wives looking after their husbands, Frances Lewis came down the hall to strike up a conversation with Fran McGlothlin. Soon, the Lewises' private chef was fixing martinis for the women, and making dinner for both couples.

Frances Lewis then arranged for a private tour of the VMFA. "She was so enthusiastic about the Museum," Fran McGlothlin recalls, and she came away from the visit feeling the same way. She learned shortly thereafter that Gov. Jim Gilmore wanted to appoint her to the VMFA's board of trustees. She accepted, was reappointed by Gov. Mark Warner, and has been a trustee since 1998. (On the board, Fran McGlothlin says, "Frances Lewis and I were great allies.")

Former art dealer Charlotte Major Minor, the president of the board of trustees, says she was appointed around the same time as Fran McGlothlin. Minor recalls learning that the McGlothlins had been starting a collection, and the excitement they felt about what was then a new passion. "I don't know if anyone realized the significance of her collection before she came onboard," Minor says.

Through the years, with their own work and with the help of Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., curator of American art at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, the McGlothlins' collection has grown to 130 pieces. The couple has become part of "a small group of eight or ten collectors across the nation who pursue American art at the highest level," Stebbins writes in the catalog for the exhibit "Capturing Beauty," which features work from the McGlothlins' collection and opens this week at the VMFA.

Recently, Minor got to see just how significant the collection has become. Like the McGlothlins, Minor and her husband, G. Gilmer Minor III, have a home in Florida. In January, Fran McGlothlin invited her over to see the artwork on display. "I was overwhelmed," Minor says. "It is so beautifully exhibited, well-lighted. ... they took a lot of time and thought into how they placed the paintings. It's just one visual treat after another."

"This collection would be eagerly accepted by any museum in America — or any museum in the world," the VMFA's Brand says.

Fran McGlothin is a mutual admirer of Brand. She was part of the interview team that chose him to succeed Katharine Lee in 2000. In the interview, McGlothlin recalls them discussing why the American art was tucked away in the far right wing of the museum. "It should be first and foremost in the front," McGlothlin recalls Brand saying. "And I said, that's my guy."

Brand was hired. The Museum's capital campaign, which has grown to a goal of $150 million, began. Extensive renovation plans were celebrated, including a move to increase the size of the American galleries from 5,000 to 11,000 square feet and bring the collection into a more central position in the new space — and in its own wing.

The VMFA was on a roll. Less than a year and a half ago, after an annual meeting of the board of trustees, Brand and his wife served as hosts for a dinner at The Oaks, their Museum-owned, Windsor Farms home. Reynolds recalls it as a night of festivity and family. "I think it was just one of those really good nights that just clicked," she says.

At the dinner, the McGlothlins would share a big decision with Brand.

"Whether you own an old jalopy or a 20-year-old boat, you become attached to what my wife calls 'permanent property,'" says Birch Douglass, president of the VMFA Foundation, the Museum's primary fund-raising arm. With something like an art collection, Douglass says, "it almost rises to the level of an additional child."

"People who do collect don't want to see it dispersed at their death, because they put time and effort into collecting things to be assembled in a particular way," says Douglass, who also works in estate planning as a partner in the law firm McGuireWoods. "They really don't want to see it just cast aside when they're gone."

Indeed, such thoughts began to dawn on the McGlothlins when they worked on some estate-planning issues a year ago. "Your paintings become like children, really," says Fran McGlothlin, 61. The couple wanted the collection to stay together after all the "love and effort" they'd put in, she says. And, her husband adds, "we felt like now it was worth sharing with the world." So they decided they'd bequest it to an institution.

But where? "It's not an easy decision to make," Fran McGlothlin says. And despite her ties to the VMFA, she says, "It wasn't just a slam dunk."

The McGlothlins talked to fellow art collectors, asking how they had made such decisions. They began thinking about where their own collection would mean the most and looked hard at the future of the VMFA. "Let's face it," Fran McGlothlin says, "the people who are in place today are not going to be in place 50 years from now."

What sold them on the VMFA? A variety of factors, the McGlothlins say, including the Museum's renovations. Brand says that because the McGlothlins were considering their gift while the Museum was in the midst of its expansion plans, it "gave us an opportunity to talk to them about, well, if the collection might grow in this way, we have a chance to tie down some really wonderful exhibition space for American art." And that's what they did. A new wing for American art will be named for the McGlothlins.

The McGlothlins considered the impact their collection would have on the Museum rather than a larger institution where it might mean less. They also appreciated the Museum's educational programs and its location in their native state (they now live in Austin, but keep a home in Bristol, Va.).

At the trustee party at his home, Brand says, "I remember Jim shaking my hand after dinner and saying, 'We're going to do something for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Some of our collection and support is going to come to this Museum.'"

The McGlothlins say they had made their decision. But Brand says things hadn't ended for him: "It takes a long time to work out, what does that mean?"

In such situations, you never know until the deal is sealed. It's a relationship, says the VMFA Foundation's Major Gifts Manager Anna von Gehr. "And relationships change minute by minute."

Behind the scenes, Brand, his development team and other trustees began answering any questions they could for the McGlothlins. As Douglass says, they took advantage of every opportunity "for someone to say an encouraging word, to speak positively about what our plans are, to show ... that the Museum and the Foundation were on a roll to achieve their campaign goal."

You must "show that you are, and will always be, good stewards doing the right thing," Douglass says. Just having your name on a new wing probably isn't as important to donors of a collection, he says, as knowing the institution has strong character, high standards, and will enhance what the collection means.

"You work with them to find their vision, what they want to do, how they see the collection, how they see it fitting into your total vision," Reynolds says. That doesn't happen overnight, she stresses. "When you're courting somebody," you just don't propose to them the first time you go out with them. It takes trust. It takes understanding each other. It takes realizing what everybody's about."

As for Brand, Reynolds says, "I don't think anyone would give an amazing gift like this if they were not comfortable with the director."

About a month ago, the McGlothlins finalized their letter of agreement with the Museum. They will bequeath their entire collection to the Museum, including a $10 million donation to its capital campaign — the largest gift to date, bringing the campaign to $140 million of its $150 million goal. They will also provide an endowment to support the collection and other museum plans. In all, the VMFA says the gift is worth more than $140 million now — and much more when the collection is complete and passed to them.

After the news was official, Brand called, Fran McGlothlin says, and told them, "This is such a great day for the Museum."

The McGlothins say already the gift has changed their perspective. It's broadened their collecting, Jim McGlothlin says. "We feel like we're doing it for them now," his wife adds, "and not just for ourselves." S

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