For her 93rd birthday, Becky Benaroya — whose husband, Jack, was a real-estate developer and philanthropist — donated the family art collection and $14 million to Tacoma Art Museum.
For her 93rd birthday, Becky Benaroya decided to give the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) a present: 225 artworks from her family’s private collection and $14 million to expand the museum’s gallery footprint by almost a quarter.
“This is an ideal gift — a significant art collection built with vision and passion,” said Stephanie Stebich, TAM’s executive director. “And a donor who’s able to offer funds for new galleries makes a powerful combination.”
Benaroya amassed the collection over decades with her husband, the late real-estate developer and arts philanthropist, Jack Benaroya. He largely financed the construction of Seattle’s Benaroya Hall and supported hospitals and other charities, as well as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. The couple met while they attended Garfield High School.
The Benaroya collection, said gallerist Greg Kucera, has a focus on glass art, with a special emphasis on artists affiliated with the Pilchuck Glass School in Snohomish County. The collection includes works by Northwest artists, including Morris Graves, Deborah Butterfield, Dale Chihuly, Jeffry Mitchell, Mark Tobey and many others. It also features work by Manuel Neri and Lino Tagliapietra.
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“This gift is the action of a very great benefactor,” said Kucera, who has sold the Benaroyas’ artwork over the years and has seen their collection. “As people reach a certain age, they think about the prominence of what they collected and how best to keep it visible.” TAM has a more explicit focus on local art than the Seattle Art Museum, he said, which may explain why the artworks are bound for Tacoma instead of Seattle Art Museum (SAM).
“TAM has really leveraged themselves to be the keepers of a Northwest tradition,” Kucera explained, “where SAM is an all-purpose, many-disciplines kind of museum.”
Gallerist William Traver, who has also sold work to the Benaroya family, said TAM’s focus on glass was a key factor and agreed that the family’s gift to TAM is “one of the best collections of glass in the country.”
While some collectors leave much of their work in storage, Kucera said the Benaroyas “lived with their art every day,” keeping much of it displayed around their homes and offices in Seattle and Palm Springs, Calif.
The Benaroya family’s gift to TAM follows one by Erivan and Helga Haub, a German couple with connections to the Tacoma area who, in 2012, donated approximately 300 artworks to TAM, along with $20 million for the museum’s expansion and endowment.
“Museums are collections of collections,” Stebich said. “We were surprised and delighted when she approached us.” Stebich said talks about the gift began in the summer.
Benaroya was not available for comment but said in a prepared statement that she “approached TAM for many reasons; chief among them was the museum’s focus on Northwest art … finding the right home for our works is a very personal matter.”
TAM has been criticized for its recent “Art AIDS America” exhibit, which included only five African-American artists of 107 in the show, even though the African-American community accounts for more than 40 percent of AIDS-related deaths. Stebich and Chief Curator Rock Hushka said they didn’t know the demographic breakdown of the artists in the Benaroya collection, but that work by African-American artists and at least one Japanese National Treasure — by glass artist Kyohei Fujita — are included.
“In the glass world, there’s still work to be done, even in terms of women artists being represented,” Stebich said. “The Benaroya collection is a very personal one that relates to their years with Pilchuck.” The Benaroyas have donated significantly to the glass-art school and served on its board.
Hushka added: “The question is a good one; we don’t want to downplay any aspect of this conversation” about the collection’s demographics.
In the end, Stebich said, the gift is “a very beautiful story and we’re honored and delighted. I was telling somebody else about it earlier who said: ‘My god. It’s like TAM won the Powerball.’”