The name Keith Kissee may not ring a bell, but for 20 years, his car was a must-see during the holidays. Sitting at Monument Avenue and Strawberry Street was his vintage Cadillac, elaborately decorated with colorful lights, Santa Claus and dozens of stuffed animals.
Growing up in Ozark, Missouri, Kissee recalls the holidays as a big deal in his family. During the Depression, his grandmother Hoppy fed people out of the back door of the family farmhouse, sharing whatever bounty they had with hungry strangers. His mother continued the largesse by loading up her children on Christmas Eve and taking baskets of food to county residents in need.
“That tradition of giving back was a part of me,” Kissee says. “When I began decorating that old Cadillac, I never dreamed it would mean so much to people.” He found out exactly how much when people began leaving letters in his mail slot thanking him.
What kind of person decorates a car so that others may get joy from it? The kind who finished graduate school at Oklahoma State University with a master’s degree in animal science, became a cattle broker in Charlottesville and soon began collecting Depression-era art. After buying a house on Pantops in 1988, Kissee set out to appoint his new home with as much original art as possible.
“I was influenced by family stories about the Depression and became fascinated with the WPA and the New Deal,” he says. “But I didn’t set out to do this.”
And by this, he means amass a collection of more than a thousand pieces of 20th-century art.
His cattle business requires that he travel nationwide, so he uses the opportunity to seek out pieces that align with his focus. It helps that Kissee finds art everywhere he goes and knows what he likes: That includes online auctions, a dusty painting of Monroe Park found lying on a gallery floor and an enormous painting of baseball legend Honus Wagner purchased during Media General’s de-accessioning sale.
“I’m not trying to pretend I’m Paul Mellon, but it has been a satisfying journey assembling it,” he admits. “There’s a story here and it’s enriched my life on many levels.”
Because he frequently flew out of Richmond’s airport, he was familiar with the city and had fallen hard for Monument Avenue’s stately charm. When he decided in 1994 that his life would be easier if he was closer to the bigger airport, he bought the house at Monument and Strawberry. “It was a place I could enjoy and I just filled it up,” he says.
His long-time housekeeper, the one tasked with dusting all those objects, was less enthusiastic with his ever-growing collection.
Two years ago, he got an unsolicited offer on his house and began to think about downsizing, knowing that no one in his family wanted his art. In April 2017, he bought the penthouse apartment at the Prestwould Condominiums and began donating some of his art. Three works by regionalist artist Thomas Hart Benton — also a Missouri native — were given to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts while other works went to the Valentine museum and Longwood University. Still, there are close to 300 works hung in the renovated penthouse, including a Thomas Hart Benton he wasn’t ready to part with.
Just don’t ask him about favorites because he won’t say. He’ll rhapsodize about two large paintings that frame a window — “La Peruvian” and “La Bohemian,” both by California artist Otis Oldfield, who painted one of the murals inside San Francisco’s Coit Tower as part of the WPA, and tell a sly story about acquiring them, but won’t use the word favorite, although it’s clear they hold a special place in his heart. But then, so does Gideon Townsend Stanton’s “Noon Rest,” the first major work he purchased, which came from a New Orleans collector.
“My favorite is personal and it would be embarrassing to tell,” he says with a smile. “But sometimes in the middle of the night, there are times when I go to the liquor cabinet and go sit in a room and draw great satisfaction from it.”
Kissee is the first to admit that he doesn’t know where his collection will end up. He’s told his family members that if he gets hit by a bus, they’ll be the ones to decide and he trusts them. If it falls to him, he plans to keep the collection largely intact when it’s donated.
Much as he loves the art he’s spent a lifetime collecting, Kissee also knows it doesn’t define him.
“I could find the cure for cancer tomorrow and my gravestone would still say, ‘He had the Christmas Cadillac.’”