Daniel J. Terra, Terra Museum of American Art, Evanston, Illinois, circa 1980, with Frederic Edwin Church, Our Banner in the Sky, 1861. Oil paint over lithograph on paper, laid down on cardboard.

‘Wherever you see American art, you can be almost certain the Terra Foundation is involved’

For more than 40 years, the foundation created by the printing entrepreneur and visionary art collector Daniel Terra has provided a bedrock of support for US art at home and abroad, influencing artists’ reputations and auction prices

Sometime in the late 1920s, a first-generation Italian-American named Daniel Terra took part in a tap audition. He wasn’t recalled, losing out to fellow Pennsylvanian Gene Kelly. But what might have been showbusiness’s loss became the art world’s gain.

Kelly went on to Hollywood stardom. Terra went back to school, studying chemical engineering at Pennsylvania State University. He became fascinated by ink (his father was a lithographer), eventually inventing a compound that made it dry almost immediately. This led to the development of high-speed rotary presses that revolutionised magazine printing.

Lawter, the Chicago-based company co-founded by Terra in 1940, was soon a leading global producer of printing ink resin, and still manufactures in seven countries across Asia, Europe and North and South America. In 1995, the year before Terra’s death, Forbes  estimated his fortune at $790 million.

His art collection ran to more than 600 works by 200 artists. And the foundation he had set up in 1978, also in Chicago, was poised to become perhaps the most powerful advocate for American art there has ever been.

Two years earlier, the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence had prompted a reappraisal of historic American art, and, as the Terra Foundation’s president and CEO Elizabeth Glassman explains, Terra became passionate both about American art and — appropriately for a man whose invention had enabled the launch of illustrated weeklies such as Life — ‘the notion that people outside the United States should understand that we too had a visual culture, that we had artists we were proud of even if they weren’t so well known’.

Samuel F. B. Morse, Gallery of the Louvre, 1831-33. Oil on canvas. 73¾ x 108 in (187.3 x 274.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.51. Photography © Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago

Samuel F. B. Morse, Gallery of the Louvre, 1831-33. Oil on canvas. 73¾ x 108 in (187.3 x 274.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.51. Photography © Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago

Thus Terra’s collecting began to focus almost exclusively on figurative American works from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest painting he bought is Pieter Vanderlyn’s primitive Portrait of Mrs Myndert Myndertse and Her Daughter, Sara, circa 1741; the most expensive is Gallery of the Louvre (above) by Samuel Morse, the inventor of Morse code, for which Terra paid $3.25 million in 1982, then the most anyone had paid for a work by an American artist.

These are just two rarities in a collection that also includes Mary Cassatt, Thomas Cole, John Singleton Copley, Lyonel Feininger, Arshile Gorky, Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Singer Sargent, James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Grant Wood — ‘about 30 per cent of it out on loan at any given time’.

‘Wherever you see American art, you can be almost certain the Terra Foundation is somehow involved,’ says James Bradburne, director of the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. In 2018, the foundation made some 100 grants, totalling more than $11.3 million, in support of its mission to further, as Glassman puts it, the ‘knowledge, enjoyment, appreciation and understanding of American art’, which it fulfils by supporting ‘cross-cultural dialogue’, exhibitions, fellowships, scholarships and travel grants. ‘If you’re writing a dissertation on Donald Judd, you really have to go to Marfa and see his installations,’ she says by way of example.

In the Terra Foundation’s vault in Chicago, Pieter Vanderlyn, Portrait of Mrs Myndert Myndertse (Jannetje-Persen) and Her Daughter, Sara, circa 1741. Photograph David Kasnic

In the Terra Foundation’s vault in Chicago, Pieter Vanderlyn, Portrait of Mrs Myndert Myndertse (Jannetje-Persen) and Her Daughter, Sara, circa 1741. Photograph: David Kasnic

The foundation is better known, however, for the major museum shows it supports. When, for instance, Sweden’s venerable Nationalmuseum, one of the oldest museums in the world, reopened last year after a five-year refit costing 1.2 billion krona (about $125 million), it did so with a Terra-funded monographic survey of paintings by John Singer Sargent, whose work had never been shown in Scandinavia, although he had spent a fishing holiday in Norway in 1901.

It was a spectacular show. ‘I was thrilled that they chose to open with that,’ says Glassman. ‘What I find is that museums want to offer their visitors opportunities to discover artists they didn’t know; movements that they weren’t aware of; paintings that they haven’t seen. And Sargent was such a cosmopolitan figure.’

Indeed, from 2018’s Anni Albers survey at Tate Modern to last summer’s magisterial Alexander Calder show in Melbourne (which originated in Montreal and was the artist’s first retrospective in both Australia and Canada), by way of a raft of teaching fellowships in China at the Peking and Tsinghua Universities in Beijing, the China Art Academy at Hangzhou and Nanjing University, its remit covers the world.

‘They’re positive. They enable. They go out of their way to fulfil their mission to support awareness of American art and artists’ — James Bradburne

‘I think the Terra Foundation is marvellous,’ says Bradburne, who first worked with the organisation when he applied for a Terra grant for the exhibition Americans in Florence at Palazzo Strozzi, held in 2012 as part of the Florentine celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the death of Amerigo Vespucci.

It was a testing process, he concedes. Every application is considered not just by the foundation’s staff, but by an external international panel of independent readers as well. ‘They’re diligent, they’re rigorous. They’re positive. They enable. They go out of their way to fulfil their mission to support awareness of American art and artists.’ And their help is not just financial.

While researching another exhibition, Bradburne had encountered Otis Kaye’s masterpiece D’-JIA-VU  in a private collection and became fascinated by the virtuosic but then little-known German-American trompe l’oeil artist. He approached Terra for advice. Kaye, he felt, merited a monographic show of his own, but where?

The foundation’s president and CEO Elizabeth Glassman with 19th-century works owned by the Terra Foundation. Photograph David Kasnic

The foundation’s president and CEO Elizabeth Glassman with 19th-century works owned by the Terra Foundation. Photograph: David Kasnic

‘So I went to them with this dilemma. I said: here’s a Chicago-based artist who barely sold a work in his lifetime, but whose paintings are starting to enter major collections.’ The foundation, which, Glassman says, sees itself as a ‘bridge’, a ‘link’, a broker of introductions and aid to networking — ‘which as you know plays a big part in the art world’ — put him in touch with the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut, which agreed to put on an exhibition that he co-curated and for which he co-wrote the catalogue.

‘They were just so supportive,’ he says of the foundation. ‘If it’s within their remit, they will help. That doesn’t always mean cash. We didn’t apply for money for that show.’

Museums, curators and academics are not the only beneficiaries of what Glassman calls the foundation’s ‘intellectual capital’. One can’t help but intuit an influence on the value of works by artists who gain exposure through it, too.

Just 10 days after the New Britain exhibition closed in May 2015, a painting by Kaye, Easy Come, Easy Go — featuring, like most of his work, an arrangement of dollar bills — sold in New York for $514,000 against a lower estimate of $150,000, setting a record for the artist. That same painting had last changed hands in 1993, when it realised $107,000 in an auction where lesser works of his could still be had for four figures.

‘Terra is a colossus! It would be hard to overstate the positive impact of its efforts in supporting top-notch research’ — Eric Widing

By the time London’s Royal Academy of Arts received $120,000 from the Terra Foundation to stage an exhibition of paintings by Richard Diebenkorn, also in 2015, works by the artist were already sought-after in the USA, even if his name was not well-known overseas. 

The artist’s auction record, set at Christie’s in 2007, stood at $6.2 million. And as Dorsey Waxter of the Greenburg Van Doren Gallery in New York, which represents the Diebenkorn estate, told Art News  in 2008, his early abstracts were beginning to sell for six-figure sums rising to ‘several million, depending on size’.

The London show was followed by two further Terra-enabled exhibitions, this time showing Diebenkorn’s paintings alongside works by Matisse, at the Baltimore Museum of Art and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In May 2018, Christie’s sold a dozen Diebenkorns in aid of the Donald and Barbara Zucker Family Foundation, of which the super-stellar lot, Ocean Park #126, realised $23.9 million against a lower estimate of $16 million.

It’s also possible that the publicity surrounding 2019’s outstanding retrospective of paintings by the Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner at London’s Barbican Centre, enabled by a Terra grant of $350,000 and bringing together loans from museums across the USA as well as several private collections, had a bearing on the auction record for one of her paintings.

This was set a matter of days before its London opening last May, when Emily and Mitchell Rales, the collectors behind the Glenstone museum in Potomac, paid $11.7 million for The Eye Is the First Circle  (1960), more than doubling the previous record of $5.5 million set at Christie’s in 2017.

The first Krasner retrospective of this scale in continental Europe, the exhibition moved, with further support from Terra, to the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt on 11 October, and will soon open at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern before travelling to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

Clockwise from left Walter Ufer, Builders of the Desert, 1923; Charles Sheeler, Bucks County Barn, 1940; Thomas Buford Meteyard, Giverny, Moonlight, circa 1890-93; all in the foundation’s vault.  Photograph David Kasnic

Clockwise from left: Walter Ufer, Builders of the Desert, 1923; Charles Sheeler, Bucks County Barn, 1940; Thomas Buford Meteyard, Giverny, Moonlight, circa 1890-93; all in the foundation’s vault.  Photograph: David Kasnic

Ultimately, however, ‘It is scholarship that supports the American art market,’ says Eric Widing, deputy chairman of Christie’s and a previous head of its American paintings department. And in that respect, ‘Terra is a colossus! It would be hard to overstate the positive impact of its efforts in supporting top-notch research.

‘Forty years ago, when I started out in this field, one could put the entire output of American art scholarship on a single library shelf. Now, thanks to Terra’s efforts and all the catalogues it has underwritten, there are thousands of books, so dealers, auction specialists, curators, collectors or just the curious art lover can research almost any artist or topic in American art.’

The exhibitions that Terra supports don’t exclusively feature American art. In 2019, the National Gallery Singapore staged the first major survey of minimalist art in Southeast Asia, Minimalism: Space. Light. Object, to which the Terra Foundation gave $200,000. Although the likes of Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko were all present, Americans accounted for fewer than half of those whose work was featured.

The object of the exhibition was, in the words of the National Gallery’s director, Eugene Tan, to ‘examine the relationship of minimalism to art in Asia, as well as the influence that Asian spirituality and philosophy had on its origins’. As Glassman said at the time, minimalism was a movement with ‘multiple points of origin’ and, in supporting it, the Terra Foundation was exploring its ‘legacies and influences across the globe today [and] reinforcing our belief that art possesses the power to both distinguish cultures and unite them’.

Certainly, Daniel Terra had long been wise to cross-cultural influences, not least when it came to Impressionism. Having opened a museum in 1980 — originally outside Chicago, in Evanston, though it later relocated to the city’s smartest shopping street, Michigan Avenue — he opened a second in France in 1992. It was a five-minute walk from Monet’s house, and he named it the Musée d’Art Américain Giverny, filling it with work by the likes of John Leslie Breck, Willard Metcalf, Louis Ritter and Theodore Wendel — Americans who had been drawn to Giverny by Monet and formed their own colony there.

In 2009, however, the Terra Foundation transferred its ownership to five local authorities, which run it in collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and have renamed it the Musée des Impressionismes (hence the works by Bonnard, Caillebotte and Signac you may find on display, not to mention — in a nod to Monet’s interest in Japanese art — a substantial body of work by the Japanese artist Hiramatsu Reiji). 

The foundation, which also has an office and a library in Paris, no longer owns the museum, but it is still involved in organising and funding exhibitions. Indeed, should you find yourself in Giverny, it is very much worth the detour. It has its own luxuriant gardens, more formal and contemporary than Monet’s estate, but no less glorious, especially when the adjacent poppy field is in bloom.

It’s hard to imagine a lovelier memorial to its founder, a man who in life was appointed the USA’s first and only Ambassador at Large for Cultural Affairs, and whose legacy continues to champion American art and culture at home and abroad. A man who, just for the record, never quite gave up on his passion for showmanship. Even in later life, his obituary in the Washington Post  revealed, he was inclined to break into song, surprising guests at a dinner ‘by suddenly appearing in full Uncle Sam regalia singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy”’.