The history of the Chrysler Museum starts with more than a century of hard work and dedication by many, many residents of Hampton Roads who believed in the civic virtue of art and art education.

Those rewarding efforts moved to an entirely different level 40 years ago, with what is now considered one of strongest and most varied gifts ever made in American history to a single museum by a single person.

Walter Chrysler, Jr., scion of the automotive company founder, donated nearly 10,000 objects as part of an arrangement where the Norfolk Academy of Arts and Sciences became the Chrysler Museum of Art.

The story of his gift goes far beyond the sheer numbers. It’s what his collection contained that remains breathtaking to this day.  A late, legendary New York Times art critic called Chrysler the most underrated American collector of his time, and it’s easy to see why.

As a young man he met the top avant-garde artists of Paris (including Picasso) and was soon purchasing works by them all. He spent his summers in American artist colonies (such as Provincetown, Mass.), and bought works from many future art stars well before they way famous. He was known for buying against fashion, as he had confidence that the special qualities he saw in various pieces would gain acceptance later.

 Perhaps what’s most remarkable is the almost impossible-to-define sense of knowing which one to buy; that is, if you can have only one example of a certain style, if you can have only one item from a certain artist, which one would you pick and why? Such judgments are completely subjective, of course, but a lot of art experts believe Walter Chrysler had the knack for getting the right one.

For more details specifically related to Walter Chrysler, Jr., click here. Chrysler’s contributions to this Museum are no doubt monumental, but there are many other people who have made valuable contributions, and the history of the Chrysler is their story, too. And we haven't even gotten to all the good things that have happened here in the four decades after Chrysler's gift. 

The concept of the fine arts as a civic obligation took root in Norfolk in 1871, when two women arrived in the city and established a school for girls. Irene Leache and her student and companion Anna Wood ran the Leache-Wood Seminary for nearly two decades before retiring to Europe, where Leache died in 1900.

To honor her memory and her lifelong devotion to the arts, Wood established in Norfolk the Irene Leache Library, which nurtured a growing art collection for a future museum in the city. Their efforts inspired generations of women in the region, and in the 1930s, the Norfolk Society of Arts helped lead the drive to fund the creation of the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences in 1933.

One of the first major gifts to what would become the Museum came through the work of Florence Sloane, a prominent Norfolk resident who had once had her portrait done by the noted artist Helen Turner.

In 1927, Turner had an exhibition in Norfolk, and a local patron purchased Turner’s impressionist masterworkLiliies, Lanterns and Sunshine as a gift for the upcoming museum. By 1934, Turner was on the new museum’s advisory board.

In 1963, the museum got as a gift a painting that had been passed down through a Baltimore family for generations. The work of a monumental figure in American art, Charles Wilson Peale, the painting Mrs. Thomas Elliott was a gift from Mrs. Jane Batten. This was significant, as 47 years later, nine paintings from the collection of Jane Batten and her late husband Frank were promised as gifts to the museum. They include works by American masters such as Winslow Homer and Albert Bierstadt, and they will be a major addition to the collection.

In 1971 came the Chrysler donation, and by 1976, the city of Norfolk had added 20 galleries to hold the works. There were further building additions in the 80s, including the George and Linda Kaufman Theatre. Walter Chrysler chaired the Museum Board of Trustees until 1984, and he died in 1988 after a long battle with cancer.

In the history of the Museum, donations from collectors such as Edgar and Bernice Chrysler Garbish, Emile Wolf, Goldsborough Serpell, Erwin and Adrianne Joseph and the family of Joel  Cooper have dramatically enriched the Museum’s collection. Members of the Mowbray Arch Society have contributed great works to the Chrysler, and the Norfolk Society of Arts remains active to this day.

Contributed by Anonymous
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