(Updated with new photos, June 5)
This past weekend we returned once more to the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection in Charlottesville, Virginia for the inaugural reception for the Mara Tjuta Circle, honoring donors, friends and supporters of the Collection. The guests of honor was none other than John W. and Tussi Kluge, whose generosity established the collection in 1997 with a gift of over 1,500 paintings, sculptures and other objects representing the ritual and ceremonial output of Aboriginal artists from the middle of the 20th century to its end.
The surprise announcement, made by Betsy Foote Casteen on behalf of her husband John Casteen, President of the University of Virginia, was the donation by John and Tussi Kluge of sixteen early Papunya boards that had been loaned to the Kluge-Ruhe for the current exhibition, Virtuosity: the Evolution of Painting at Papunya Tula. Artists represented in this stunning new gift include Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, Anatjari Tjakamarra, and Uta Uta Tjangala. All the works date from the earliest days of Papunya Tula painting, and any single one of them would constitute a major addition to any collection of early Pintupi painting or indeed of Aboriginal art in general.
In addition to his largesse in establishing the Kluge-Ruhe Collection, Kluge has endowed scholarships for undergraduates at his alma mater, Columbia University, in recognition and gratitude for the scholarship funds that enabled him to attend and be graduated from that institution in 1937. He has also recently endowed the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and instituted a $1 million prize in recognition of lifetime achievement in the humanities, an award Kluge himself compares to the Nobel Prizes in literature and economics.
Kluge’s interest in Aboriginal art began when he saw the Dreamings exhibition at the Asia Society in New York City in 1988. As his business interests often took him to Australia, he began to pursue the collecting of Indigenous art. He initiated large commissions of work from Papunya Tula, Warlayirti Artists in Balgo, and Bula’ Bula Art in Ramingining. He later purchased the collection built by Ed Ruhe, a Professor of English at the University of Kansas, who had spent many summers in Arnhem Land during the 1960s, befriending and collecting works from major law men, including Dawidi Djulwarak, David Malangi, and George Milpurrurru.
The Kluge-Ruhe opened its doors to the public in 1999, and I made my first trip there two years later. I’ve lost count of the visits I’ve made since then, and have never ceased to be amazed at the magnificence of its holdings. For sheer size alone, it is the largest and most important collection of Aboriginal art in North America, but size is the merest measure of its riches, and although the exhibition space is presently somewhat limited, every single show has offered delights unimagined: early barks by John Marunwjul, ceremonial poles by Mickey Durrng, exquisite portraits of kangaroo ancestors by Brian Njinawanga, major canvases by the Papunya masters of the 80s and an extraordinary roster of color from Balgo. Masterpieces by artists whose fame may not be quite so far-reaching, like the Bush Onion Dreaming by Limpi Putungka Tjapangati that graces the cover of A Myriad of Dreaming: twentieth century Aboriginal art (Malakoff Fine Art Press, 1989) have also found a home at the Kluge-Ruhe.
Mr. Kluge is now 93 years old and somewhat frail, but he is as intellectually engaged with his broad interests in media, technology, the humanities, and philanthropy as one might imagine. And his generosity is still equally vibrant. He opened his brief remarks to the assembly by saying, “A collection is only as good as its curator,” recognizing both the extraordinary work that Margo Smith has done over the last decade on behalf of the Collection and his enduring affection for her.
It was therefore a rare and wonderful privilege to be afforded a brief opportunity to sit and talk with Mr. Kluge once the formalities were over. We began by discussing our mutual interest in Aboriginal art, of course, but once he discovered that I’m a librarian by trade, we were off into the marvels of the collections of the Library of Congress and as the conversation ended he said that if I were ever interested in seeing the originals of Thomas Jefferson’s papers, I should have a word with Margo, and he would arrange a viewing for me!
All in all, it was a most extraordinary afternoon.