$12M donation will create dedicated space for women artists at Muskegon Museum of Art

Janice K. Johnson


MUSKEGON, MI – The Muskegon Museum of Art will soon be one of the only museums in the world to have a space dedicated to artwork created by women, thanks to a recent multimillion-dollar donation from two San Antonio-based art collectors.

The museum has received more than 150 pieces of artwork donated by collectors Steven Alan Bennett and Elaine Melotti Schmidt, the museum announced last week.

Valued at $10.5 million, the donated collection consists entirely of artwork created by female artists, all depicting women in a figurative realist style. Bennett and Schmidt also contributed a $1.5 million cash gift to help with the museum’s ongoing expansion plans.

The total $12 million gift will position Muskegon as one of less than five museums in the world that have dedicated spaces for artwork by female artists, according to a museum news release.

Bennett and Schmidt are the creators of The Bennett Collection, a collection of figurative realist paintings by women artists, and the $50,000 Bennett Prize, the largest art award in the award offered solely to women painters.

The two collectors said their mission is to encourage women painters to take their place among the most celebrated painters, a group currently dominated by men.

“From the moment we commenced collecting, we were concerned that women artists were not being treated equally with men,” Bennett said in a prepared statement. “They have fewer shows; they have fewer pieces in museums’ permanent collections; and their works have almost universally sold for less than those of men.”

“We have seen our Collection as a way to right some of these wrongs and are delighted that the Muskegon Museum of Art is joining us to ensure that the effort continues long into the future.”

Bennett said the collection of donated artwork will “catapult” the Muskegon Museum of Art into “the forefront of progressive museums that recognize the primacy and power of the work of women painters.”

“What has been an exceptionally good collection will now be augmented with many powerful works by women that span the generations,” he said.

“The people of Muskegon will be the beneficiaries, and their Museum will be able to present a much broader picture of the contributions that women painters have made to our understanding of culture, history and ourselves.”

A survey completed by art market website ArtNet in 2019 found that only 11% of art acquired over the last decade by the country’s top museums for their permanent collections was by women, according to the museum news release.

The donated collection includes 150 works of art by 115 contemporary and historical female artists, including Artemisia Gentileschi, Mary Cassatt, Agnes Martin, Elaine de Kooning, Harmonia Rosales, Julie Bell, Andrea Kowch and Katie O’Hagan, according to the museum.

Kirk Hallman, executive director of the museum, called the donation a “transformative and once-in-a-lifetime gift.”

“This gifted artwork adds an entirely new dimension and balance to our already impressive collection,” Hallman said in a statement. “In addition, the Bennett-Schmidt gift is a call to action institutionally, encouraging both the Muskegon Museum of Art and other museums to continually expand opportunities for women artists.”

In addition to the huge donation of artwork, Bennett and Schmidt donated $1.5 million in cash toward the museum’s ongoing expansion project. The expansion is expected to be completed in 2024.

The $11.2 million project will more than double the size of the museum, adding three new rotating galleries, two classrooms, a rooftop terrace, museum store, connecting and support space, and a public plaza.

Boston-based Ann Beha Architects is the leading design firm for the expansion project.

RELATED: Muskegon Museum of Art selects architect to make $9.9M expansion a reality

In addition to the $1.5 million contributed by Bennett and Schmidt, the museum has also received $9.6 million in contributions from other donors since first launching a silent fundraising campaign for the expansion in January 2020.

The list of donations includes $1 million from the Van Kampen Boyer Molinari Foundation, $1 million from the city of Muskegon, and $500,000 donations from Carol R. Folkert and family, The Hilt Foundation, Patrick O’Leary Foundation, Brad & Kathleen Playford, Shape Corporation, and Mrs. Shaw Walker, according to the museum.

The Muskegon Museum of Art houses over 5,000 pieces of art in its collection, and the expansion plan will allow the museum to display more of its art at one time. The museum first opened in 1912.

The museum, located at 296 W. Webster Ave., is open Tuesday through Wednesday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday from 11 a.m.-8 p.m. and Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Admission is free on Thursdays thanks to The Meijer Foundation. On other days, admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $6 for students with a school ID, and free for children under age 16.

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