Rebecca Donelson knows what art is and what art isn’t. Above all she knows the art of living a full and fun life. Armed with a fine education to know all about the masters, you can easily imagine her with some of the most famous artists of the last forty years. Just as easily, you can imagine this southern girl riding a horse, with a fishing pole in one hand and a paint brush in another, not taking it all too seriously. She has worked at the National Gallery of Art and The Art Institute of Chicago, yet she fits right into a little fishing village, enjoying fresh stone crabs with family and friends, while taking in the art that surrounds her everyday life. Recently, I sat down with her and we took a look at some of the scenes from an interview of her life.
Tell me about your historic Florida roots.
I was born in Gadsden, Alabama near Rome, Georgia. We lived on a cotton plantation that General Sherman came within twenty miles of while on his famous March to the Sea. I’m a southern girl. My mom’s family, the Fulfords, was one of five families that came to Florida in the 1880s and developed the fishing industry in Cortez, Florida. There is only one left – A.P. Bell Fish Company – that is the last of the fisheries. We are all related in some way. Those old houses are still there and there is the Florida Maritime Museum in Cortez that represents the history of fishing. It’s the oldest active fishing village in Florida. It’s a tiny place that’s just charming. It’s a time warp that hasn’t changed. There is not much of “Old Florida” that still exists. Paint a picture of your childhood growing up.
My father was in the Air Force so we were mainly in Washington, DC. I would come back south to visit my grandmothers, either here in Florida or in North Georgia. As a child, I was either on a horse with no saddle, riding through cotton fields with a gun. Can you imagine that? A twelve-year-old with a gun. My cousin and I would shoot holes in watermelons. I would be gone the whole day on the beach playing or fishing from sun up to sun down. It was total freedom. It was like Huck Finn.
Describe your educational background.
I never went to school in this area. I went to the University of Edinburgh and the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence and I also have a degree from the University of Chicago.
How did you find your way to Sarasota?
I had one too many bad winters in Chicago and I remember walking through a winter’s day with Chicago winds and a temperature well below zero. I was crying and I said to my husband, “I think I’m going to die this winter from this cold. We have to go to Florida.” And he said, “Over my dead body.” So we just went down and rented a place to see what it would be like. He ended up falling in love with it.
You have been an art dealer and curator. What’s the most enjoyable part and the most difficult?
Interestingly, both the good and the bad part of the job is dealing with the artist. Back in the 60s and 70s, you would deal with many artists who would drink a lot and then in the 1980s there was more drug use. The most enjoyable part of the job is discovery and finding new things, seeing new ideas, and discovering an artist or helping an artist. Recently there was an artist being honored by the Hermitage Artist Retreat. His name is Sanford Biggers. I went to his studio in New York where he was working on quilts. He showed me his idea for the quilts and explained, “When slaves went north they were guided to free houses by people who would put quilts outside, to let slaves know that they were safe and could find refuge there. And they also guided themselves by the stars. What I want to do is take a map of the constellations and paint them on quilts and hang them up.” Sanford is going to show these quilts at the Ringling Museum in March. I asked him if he needed some quilts. He said sure. I have some, about 350 of them in total, that go back pre-Civil War. So I told him I would give him some to paint on. I was delighted to be able to help him with this project, but what is really interesting is that a lot of quilts came from my family, who did own slaves. Here is an African-American artist, painting on quilts about slaves fleeing to freedom, that I am giving him – the very quilts from my family who were slave owners. Do you think we have come full circle?
Can you paint?
I studied painting and print-making. I realized early on that I didn’t have the fire in my belly and I wasn’t that talented. I was adequate, but I wasn’t great. I switched to art history and the curator tract because I knew I wasn’t going to be a great artist. I can draw and paint, but I’m not a genius. I know my limits.
What is your definition of art?
(She looks at her watch) How many hours do you have? It is such a difficult question. Art is different to every person. I know what art isn’t. That’s a lot easier. Saying what art “is” is much more difficult. Sometimes I’ll go back to something I loved ten years later, and say, “My gosh, that’s really bad”. I like Picasso’s definition. “Art is a lie that shows us the truth.”
Describe the art scene in Sarasota.
There are a lot of people involved in the art scene in Sarasota. I’m impressed with what Ringling Museum is doing, bringing in the James Turrell installation. That is an enormous feat and that is art of the highest order. That is great art. And then there is art scattered all over the area. Some is okay and some isn’t, but at least people are trying to decorate and enhance their lives.
What would you do to make it better?
I like a lot of things going on here and again, Ringling Museum is doing great things. I think Ringling College of Art and Design is amazing and exciting. They’re involved with animation and digital. I would love to see a digital film festival and digital arts festival here because I think that is the new direction of art. I think drawing on Ipads, like David Hockney is doing, is the “right now”. Artists are using new media and forms. The art schools are great and the museums are growing. Look at all that’s happening, from SMOA trying to build a contemporary museum, to the Hermitage Artist Retreat bringing in amazing playwrights and composers. I wouldn’t change anything. I think it’s heading in the right direction. I think the level of some of the outdoor sculpture could be brought up, but I think it’s heading that way.
What is your take on Seward Johnson’s Unconditional Surrender statue that has created some controversy downtown within the art community? I see so many people taking photographs of the statue and enjoying it. It brings happiness and interest to a lot of people. It’s nostalgic. It’s difficult to judge art. So I won’t play God. It’s entertaining and entertainment fills a void for some people. Veterans who live here take pride in it so I won’t put it down. I will say that if you go to the Museum of Modern Art, you will not find a Seward Johnson. But recently I went back to Chicago and guess what I saw? A huge Seward Johnson of Grant Wood’s American Gothic and a Marilyn Monroe. And Chicago has Picassos and a lot of great art. There is a place for everything. I smile every time I pass the statue, although I don’t think it’s located in the best spot.
If you have one piece of art that you can take and put in your home so you can see it every day, what would it be?
It’s too hard to take one piece, but I will tell you, I have three minor Picassos in my living room. Picasso to me was the greatest artist that ever lived. So to be able to live with these Picassos, I don’t care what it is. It could be a poster or print. He did great art and he did it over a long span of time.
You have represented many famous artists over the last forty years. Is there a common thread that made them all great?
They all are inquisitive and they all ask questions. They listen and there is a child-like quality in all of them that they never lose. I spent a lot of time with David Hockney and he is just so very enthusiastic about everything. He is so playful. There is a twinkle in his eyes. They are always looking and searching.
Tell us about some famous artists with the first words or story that comes to mind.
Robert Motherwell: Patrician, elegant and insecure. Helen Frankenthaler: One tough cookie. She gave us as good as she had and wanted to be considered one of the boys. She was a painter and she let you know that.
David Smith: America’s greatest sculptor.
Jim Dine: Spent a lot of time in his bathrobe taking valium. Jules Olitski: A Russian intellectual – a big Russian bear.
Larry Poons: He had a lot of cats and he would open cans of cat food and he would throw them at the wall next to his paintings, so the cats wouldn’t attack him. Subsequently he did some paintings that look like cat food running down the wall.
Frank Stella: A wonderful artist who has false teeth that he likes to take out now and then.
Sam Gilliam: Sam Gilliam is a wonderful Color Field artist who I represented. He was full of fun and loved life and especially loved a good party. Around 1981, I took him with me to a fancy opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art for a famous Chicago art collection being donated to the Met. The party, fueled by much champagne, went on until the wee hours of the night. By then, we were seen having wheelchair races in the grand entrance hall of the Met racing against the director of the Whitney Museum, two other famous artists and three curators until the museum guards finally showed us the front door. That was the 1990s art world in a nutshell….fun. Describe a favorite moment you witnessed from an artist’s exhibit at one of the great museums at which you worked.
The artist was Georgia O’Keeffe and in 1970 she came to the Art Institute of Chicago for a retrospective we were opening. She arrived the first day of installation dressed in a man’s tweed suit, a man’s shirt and tie, and mannish Brogue shoes. She was a tiny woman and had her hair pulled back in a tight bun. She wore absolutely no make-up and had a slightly hairy upper lip. Her face was very craggy from years in the sun. She strode into the museum gallery early in the morning, greeted all of us, and said she was ready to work. She mounted the nearest tall ladder and started up the steps. She was in her eighties at the time and was used to doing all her own work in her studio. She looked at her large painting, White Cloud, which is about 20 feet wide and 12 feet high and was the center piece of the exhibition. She shouted, “Let’s raise it; it’s too low.” We all scrambled to get her off the ladder because we were afraid she would fall and hurt herself and we were responsible for her. It was a big fight to get her down from the ladder but she remained in the gallery and commented on every painting as they were being hung. She cared about every detail and she knew what looked best and she was a worker. She worked until day she died. She was simply one-of-a-kind and one of the greatest American painters ever. It was a privilege to meet her and work with her. I’ll never forget it.
What makes Sarasota so special?
One of the nicest things about Sarasota is that the people are so open and friendly and because it is a small town, people have time to talk to each other. We have a lot of great friends from all over the country and we travel to get our big city fix. I love the quirkiness of Sarasota. This is a circus town. There are so many aspects to this town that you can’t find anywhere in America. When we come back to that spectacular little airport we are always so happy to be here. You and your husband have been married a long time and have busy schedules.
How do you make it work?
My husband, Robert Blattberg, and I have been married for 39 years; however, because of both our work and travel schedules, we have actually only lived together, under one roof, for 20 years. That is what keeps our marriage fresh, exciting and we can say that we have only really “been together” for 20 years, which makes us sound so much younger. Also, we have been together even less time if you account for the fact that he gets up every morning at 4 a.m. to work and have breakfast and I get up at 8 a.m., which means we’ve been together even a shorter time. We rarely have breakfast together, except on vacations, but we are excited to see each other for dinners and maybe a lunch now and then. We are never bored with one another.
Describe your perfect day in Sarasota.
I would walk my dogs across the John Ringling Bridge, maybe all the way to Lido Beach and back. Then I would get in a car, drive to Cortez and the Star Fish Restaurant and have stone crabs out on the water. Then maybe some windsurfing under the Bridge without a wet suit; then I might catch a play at Asolo Rep and maybe catch some jazz at the Broadway Bar.
If you could choose one painter to paint your final portrait, who would you pick?
He is not a portrait painter, but I would choose David Hockney, who I know. He is a wonderful artist and he is so much fun to be with. You have to spend time with a portrait painter.
After all the paintings have been seen and all the sunsets enjoyed, how do you want to be remembered?
I would just like to be remembered, because I think that’s a lot to ask. I’ve always liked the saying, especially when I was younger, “Live hard, die young and leave a good looking corpse.” Well, I’ve lived hard, and not having died young, I just hope that I leave a good looking corpse, because I put a lot of money in it!”