“Visitors to ‘A Florida Legacy’ experience this art in a personal way. They talk about how a piece reminds them of a special place, or someone they once knew, or a long-ago time with a loved one,” said President Kent Fuchs at a celebration of the Harn’s new Florida art collection donated by Sam and Robbie Vickers.
It’s so good to be here with our guests of honor Sam and Robbie Vickers … with President Emeritus Bernie and Chris Machen … and with all of our esteemed guests this evening.
This moment: This is a moment worth savoring. This dinner, this company, this place: This is a wonderful celebration! It is, rather, several celebrations folded into one, like the petals of the pink flowers in “Oleanders,” the painting by Martin Johnson Heade that is among those in the stunning exhibition “A Florida Legacy.”
Two of those petals of celebration tonight are Sam and Robbie.
As a young couple they “didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” in Sam’s words. But they liked to rummage through junk stores and antique shops on weekends. They bought their first piece of art around 1980, before collecting Florida works became fashionable. They slowly began to fill their home in Jacksonville.
I was fortunate enough to visit Sam and Robbie in 2016, before they generously donated their collection to the Harn Museum. I will never forget joining them in their sitting room gallery, where the walls were adorned floor to ceiling with hundreds of paintings, sketches and illustrations of 20th century Florida.
I know some of you also had the good fortune of visiting the Vickers’ home. I’m sure you will remember the large image, resting on an easel, by the American illustrator N.C. Wyeth. It showed young Jody Baxter with his fawn, Flag, from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ novel “The Yearling.” The illustration, from 1938, is the original version of the one that appears in early editions of “The Yearling.” Sam and Robbie proudly showed me one of those early editions.
On the opposite wall, Sam pointed out a small watercolor of a Florida marsh by Wyeth’s son, the famed Andrew Wyeth. Andrew Wyeth said an unforgettable thing. He said, “I think one’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes.” Sam and Robbie’s love goes very deep.
You can see the works by Wyeth father and son in “A Florida Legacy,” along with that early copy of “The Yearling.”
This gets me to another petal of celebration within tonight’s celebrations -- and that’s the very personal character of this collection.
Sam and Robbie chose each piece because it meant something to them, like “Road Through the Orange Grove,” by A.E. Backus, which reminded them of the Florida of their youth. My colleagues here at the Harn say visitors to “A Florida Legacy” experience this art in that same, personal way: They talk about how a piece reminds them of a special place in Florida. Or someone they once knew, or a long-ago time with a loved one or family member.
This explains why it was so important to Sam and Robbie for their collection to remain intact, and why the Harn did just that. This collection is a memory of Florida both personal and shared among all who love this state. I’m too young to have experienced the highborn Sarasota of the 1940s and 50s. But I feel like I was part of it when I see the dreamlike trapeze artists of Everett Shinn’s “Saturday Night at the Ringling Hotel,” painted in 1949.
There are 163 works by more than 120 artists in “A Florida Legacy”—a fraction of the full collection, but more than enough to enrapture us. There are watercolors by John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer, but also many wonders by lesser-known artists. I love the intensely red Royal Poinciana tree in “View of Lake Worth” by Laura Woodward, one of 128 women with works in the full collection.
Now, here’s a third Oleander petal of celebration in our evening of celebrations: The privilege of seeing the history of this beautiful, complicated state.
Sam Vickers likes to say, “no one else has a complete history of Florida through the eyes of art” and that is surely true. Portraits of regal Seminole leaders transition to paintings of fishing boats in Naples and turn-of-the-century Palm Beach elegance. Many paintings show natural areas that no longer exist. Others provide a perspective on Florida’s human history that is both surprising and familiar. I love “Trailer Park Garden,” which depicts a quaint 1950s-era trailer park filled with retired snowbirds going about their daily lives.
This brings me to another petal of celebration: The future.
The Harn is fundamentally a museum with a mission of education, like the University of Florida itself. I can’t imagine a richer way to realize this mission than to give our students exposure and access to this extraordinary collection. I can’t imagine a better way for students to learn about art, or to get to know Florida history -- or to begin to think about how they might apply their knowledge to their lives and the future of the Florida they will help shape.
Speaking of the future: If you will indulge me one last petal of celebration.
Tonight we are also celebrating the launch of a fundraising campaign in support of a new 20,000-square-foot wing for the Harn. We envision in this new wing a gallery where pieces from the Vickers collection will be on permanent display. I expect it will be reminiscent of the couple’s sitting room gallery, hung floor to ceiling with the very best of Florida art.
I thank all of you for being part of that beautiful and bright-blooming future. May we grow this fantastic museum -- and the next generation of its champions -- together.