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National Gallery’s Curator Extraordinaire

Andrew Robison travels the world coaxing prints and drawings from collectors and looking for great buys.

Senior writer Larry Van Dyne last wrote about the geographic origin of the food sold in America's supermarkets.

Andrew Robison, senior curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery of Art, picked up his phone to hear the familiar voice of an art dealer in England. Both men were veterans of the high-dollar, secretive market in rare art–and the dealer was calling with news that a British collector was planning to sell his much-prized print collection. Knowing that Robison was aggressive in acquiring art for the gallery, the dealer wondered if he would be interested in a first option.

The collector was Christopher Lennox-Boyd, a gentleman educated at Eton and Oxford whose acquisitiveness was underwritten by his status as heir to the Guinness ale fortune. Over 40 years, the astute aristocrat had amassed the world's largest collection of mezzotints, a type of print that had been a British specialty in the 18th century. Robison recognized the significance of what he was hearing: While the National Gallery owned about 60 mezzotints, Christopher Lennox-Boyd owned 35,000.

That was far more than the gallery would want. But Robison was interested in skimming off the best. The prospect of going through 35,000 prints was daunting, so the dealer, who'd once worked at Christie's auction house in London, agreed to make the first cut. He'd narrow the choices to the top 10 percent and put them aside for Robison to sort through on his next trip to England.

Within a few months, the dealer moved the Lennox-Boyd collection into a storage space, picked out 3,500 of the best prints, and was ready for Robison to make his selections. Robison arrived in London in November 2000. On a bitterly cold day he left his hotel and boarded a train toward Oxford–a familiar trip because he had been a student there as a young man. An hour out of London, he found himself at a rural station with nothing more than a platform and tracks. The dealer was waiting.

Robison was sometimes amused that outsiders thought the life of a museum curator was always glamorous. They seemed to imagine that he did nothing but hobnob with rich art collectors, converse politely at elegant dinners, and sit in a comfortable chair as dealers deposited multimillion-dollar works of art on a velvet easel for his perusal. This was not to be one of those days.

After a ten-minute drive into the English countryside, the art dealer pulled into an industrial park and stopped in front of a warehouse. The windowless metal building could not have been more soulless–an oversize version of a self-storage unit. No one else was around, and Robison waited as the art dealer opened the double-locked door.

Inside stood rows of metal shelves, loaded with boxes and folders filled with prints. Along the walls sat a couple of hundred antique frames, some containing prints, others empty. Robison kept his overcoat on because the only protection from the chilly air was from a small electric heater. The dealer motioned to a makeshift table fashioned from a board and sawhorses, as if to suggest that Robison get to work: "There's your stack."

Robison worked as quickly as possible to choose what he thought were the best of the best. He got hungry around noon, but the dealer said there was no place nearby for lunch. He would have to settle for a cup of instant coffee.

By three o'clock, Robison had made it through about a third of his stack but could go no further. He was overdosed on prints–and he was cold and starved. The dealer took him back to the railroad platform, where he caught the train to London. On the way, he felt much better after buying a packet of cookies.

But Robison's real satisfaction came from knowing that he had an inside track on acquiring some spectacular prints, the work of important artists from 1680 to 1860.

After a few months, he made a second trip to the warehouse, choosing more prints. About 130 works eventually were shipped "on approval" to the National Gallery, where they were laid out and studied. Everything was on the quiet. Only Earl Powell III, the gallery's director, and Alan Shestack, deputy director and chief curator, knew of the impending deal, along with a handful of the gallery's other curators.

The final selection included 118 prints, which Robison told the gallery's trustees were the finest group of mezzotints that had been on the market "since the Wall Street crash of 1929." The trustees gave the go-ahead, though the price, following a longstanding policy of strict secrecy, was never revealed. Three of the prints, including a powerful image of a tigress in repose, were exhibited for the first time this year.

With so many great museums, Washington is a city with a notable complement of curators. They are not great in number, almost lost among the lawyers and lobbyists, bureaucrats and engineers. But curators–like theater directors or professional violinists–keep the city's cultural wheels turning.

The names of curators appear at the entrance to art exhibitions or as authors of scholarly catalogs, but they rarely achieve any celebrity. The late National Gallery director J. Carter Brown cut a large figure around town, but Andrew Robison is not a familiar name. This despite the fact that he has been one of the gallery's top curators for more than 30 years, running a department that has put on dozens of exhibitions.

His field is "works on paper"–sometimes known as "graphic arts"–which include prints, drawings, and illustrated books. Watercolors and pastels are considered drawings and fall under his purview; photographs, though printed on paper, have a separate curatorial staff.

While the National Gallery owns 3,270 paintings, it has more than 93,000 works on paper, including 61,000 prints, 30,000 drawings, and 2,300 illustrated books. Given the vast number of prints and drawings and their sensitivity to light–too much light darkens the paper and bleaches out the image–many of them are rarely exhibited, locked away instead in drawers and boxes and seen mostly by scholars.

About half of the prints and drawings have been accumulated since Robison arrived in 1973. Together they represent a mosaic of American and Western European art from the late Middle Ages to the 20th century. But acquisition is a job that is never done. Another thousand works on paper are added each year.

Becoming an Art Collector

Robison has an unlikely pedigree for the atmosphere of old money and scholarship that has long characterized the National Gallery. He does not spring from America's upper class, like Andrew Mellon, the financier and industrialist who was the gallery's founder, or like such former directors as John Walker and J. Carter Brown. Robison's middle-class parents were not art collectors; the Thomas Gainsborough that hung in their living room was a cheap reproduction of "Blue Boy." And though he earned a doctorate, it is in philosophy, and he has never taken an art-history course.

His parents grew up on farms in Tennessee, and both were college educated–his father at the University of Tennessee and his mother at Memphis State. His father was a county agricultural agent during the Depression, served in the Navy during World War II, then joined the US Department of Agriculture in Memphis. Andrew was born there in 1940 but moved with the family to Washington at 14 when his father was transferred to Agriculture Department headquarters, where he eventually was put in charge of the cotton division.

The family settled in the Virginia suburbs, and Andrew went to Annandale High School. As a teen, he and a friend bought a set of booklets called "Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art" and went downtown on weekends to see the paintings and teach themselves art history. "It was good old self-improvement," he says, "based on the idea that every educated person should know something about art."

Graduating in 1958, Robison went to Princeton, where he studied classics, philosophy, and religion–the first step in preparing for a career as a college professor. Then came three years on a Marshall Fellowship at Oxford studying early Christianity and a year in India studying Hinduism, before returning to Princeton to work on his PhD in philosophy.

As a graduate student Robison got to know three Princeton professors who collected prints and drawings, one of whom had on his office wall a print by the Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn. Robison was amazed to learn that it was not a reproduction–that it had been etched on a copper plate and printed by Rembrandt himself more than 300 years earlier. He was further amazed that such a work could be owned by a private person, that such things could be found in the catalogs of art dealers, and that they might cost as little as a few hundred dollars. "It was my moment of discovery, a revelation like that of Paul on the road to Damascus," Robison remembers.

He got on the mailing list of a dealer in London and found in his catalog a Rembrandt etching called "The Stoning of St. Stephen." It was offered at $600–a sum he could conceive of spending–though it was sold by the time his letter of inquiry arrived in London. But he was hooked on collecting and was soon the proud owner of a series of color lithographs by Marc Chagall, three of which he recently gave to his 23-year-old daughter. The next two summers he worked for an art dealer in Baltimore, taking his salary in prints.

After finishing at Princeton in 1970, Robison took a job at the University of Illinois and settled into the life of a junior professor. During his second year he met and married a graduate student in history. Though his discipline was philosophy, his interest in prints and drawings grew even deeper. He bought more works, traveled around meeting curators and exploring the collections of major museums, taught a course and published articles on the subject, and was asked on occasion to deliver lectures at other universities. He specialized in three artists–a 16th-century Venetian named Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Francisco de Goya, and Pablo Picasso.

THE NATIONAL GALLERY HAD ITS OWN HISTORY WITH PRINTSand drawings. It was a young institution, having opened in 1941 as a gift to the nation from Andrew Mellon. He donated the gallery's original building and his art collection, which consisted of a small but spectacular group of Old Master paintings but no prints or drawings. The first big collection of drawings, nearly 400, came in 1942 as a gift of Joseph E. Widener of Philadelphia, who had made his fortune in streetcar lines.

The biggest donation of prints and drawings had come from another Philadelphian, Lessing J. Rosenwald, who had succeeded his father as head of Sears, Roebuck and Co. but retired at age 48 to devote his life to art collecting. In 1943, Rosenwald agreed to give his collection of Old Master and modern prints and drawings to the National Gallery and his illustrated books to the Library of Congress. The gallery's portion included about 8,000 works, but Rosenwald continued collecting, and another 14,000 were donated by the time he died in 1979. They were stored at Alverthorpe, an estate outside of Philadelphia where Rosenwald lived, and were of such importance that a gallery curator lived and worked there. Alan Shestack, now the gallery's deputy director, held this post as a young man and remembers being transported between Philadelphia and Washington by Mr. Rosenwald's chauffeur.

By the early 1970s the National Gallery was in transition. The new East Building, designed by I.M. Pei, was under construction; the directorship had passed to young J. Carter Brown; and reliance on the generosity of Lessing Rosenwald was coming to an end. The gallery owned close to 50,000 works on paper, but that was a modest number compared with collections at the great museums of America and Europe. The National Gallery needed to play catch-up if it were ever to move into a league with older American museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, or the Art Institute of Chicago. Its graphic-arts collection also ranked far below those of older European institutions, including the British Museum in London, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Uffizi in Florence, and the Albertina in Vienna.

Hoping to invigorate the prints-and-drawings department, Brown recruited two curators from Europe, but both left after a few years. A new search began in 1973. By this time, the collecting, publishing, and lecturing of the young philosophy professor at Illinois had attracted some attention; the late Gil Ravenel, then a print curator at the gallery who later became its exhibitions designer, had heard Robison lecture and brought his name to Brown's attention. Robison's travels also had introduced him to the curators of prints and drawings at major museums, and they had good things to say about him despite his lack of formal training. A courting dance ensued–Paul Mellon, the son of the gallery's founder and a leading member of its board of trustees, read all of Robison's publications–and he was offered the job as curator of prints and drawings.

Robison had spent a dozen years preparing to teach philosophy, and he was hesitant about switching fields. But his parents still lived in Annandale, and he'd learned to love Washington and the gallery as a teenager. It was a chance, without doing a doctorate in art history, to start at the top. During the recruitment, he'd been given a hardhat, taken up into the girders of the new East Building, and shown that his office would have a view of the Capitol.

But the decisive appeal was Brown's mandate to build a collection of prints and drawings like the great collections of Europe. "Being a philosopher, I was looking for clarity, and that was something worth doing,'' Robison says. "It was big, complicated, interesting, and difficult to do."

Behind the Scenes

Today Robison occupies a corner office on the third floor of the East Building–with the dome of the Capitol gleaming in the distance and a large Frank Stella sculpture on the lawn below. On his desk the works on paper include drawings of a clown and a fish by his seven-year-old daughter–the child of his second marriage several years ago to a woman who then worked at the gallery. They live on Capitol Hill.

The office is filled with posters and catalogs of exhibitions he has curated, journals about print collecting, books on Albrecht Dürer, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Piranesi. Other items suggest the harder edges of his job–shelf after shelf of catalogs from art dealers and from the big auction houses, Sotheby's and Christie's. He also keeps a New Yorker cartoon someone gave him when he headed a campaign in 1991 to round up gifts in honor of the gallery's 50th anniversary. It shows the neoclassical façade of an art museum with a banner that reads MASTERPIECES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE OF TAX-DEDUCTIBLE CONTRIBUTIONS.

He offers a tour of his domain, beginning in the offices nearby with introductions to the senior curators who work with him. Margaret Morgan Grasselli, a Harvard-educated art historian who has been here 25 years, is in charge of Old Master drawings, and Peter Parshall, who came six years ago after a long career as an art-history professor at Reed College, is in charge of Old Master prints. The third senior person, Judith Brodie, has been at the gallery for nearly a decade and had experience at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; she oversees modern prints and drawings, and her office is in the West Building. The Rosenwald collection was moved to Washington after his death in 1979–shortly after the opening of the East Building–and the overall collection has grown so much since that it commands space in both buildings. The division is simple: European works in the new building, American works in the old.

Our next stop is the public study room. Here anyone can come in and ask to see any of the most precious works in the department's collection. It's open four hours each weekday, accessible to scholars and art lovers with nothing more than an advance phone call. Natural light pours in from a wall of windows on the south to create ideal viewing conditions, and a staff member sits at an elevated desk to survey the room and make sure visitors are handling the works properly. Please: No pens, and try not to sneeze.

With a security key, Robison unlocks a door to a storage room that is the department's inner sanctum. Designing this room was one of Robison's first tasks when he arrived, and it reflects the gallery's commitment to preserving its fragile treasures for the ages. Because water sprinklers would do great damage, the fire-protection system uses halogen, an inert gas that displaces the oxygen in the room–something that curators are reminded of by signs that in an emergency flash LEAVE ROOM. In here too are boxes containing a presorted selection of the most valuable prints, drawings, and books the gallery owns to facilitate quick removal in case of an impending disaster. Everybody calls them "the World War III boxes."

Most of the room is taken up by shelves filled with boxes, organized by century and country of origin. Each box holds about 30 prints or drawings, each protected by an acid-free mat. Along one wall are dust-resistant vinyl cabinets containing illustrated books. Below the cabinets is a 100-foot counter where curators can lay out and arrange their choices for exhibitions or examine works being considered for purchase.

One of the attributes required of curators like Robison is a good eye–that ability to discern a world of meaning in a work's subject matter, composition, lighting, and draftsmanship. They can tell if an unsigned work is attributed to the right artist. Misattribution happens: Thirteen of the 20 "Rembrandts" donated by the Widener family in the 1940s have been reattributed to lesser artists.

Curators also must have visual memories that allow them to recognize and compare thousands of images–a talent that serves as a guide to what the gallery already possesses and what it might like to acquire. When he arrived, Robison spent several months going though the 24,000 works in the Rosenwald collection, taking notes–what was good, what was not–that he carried with him on trips to acquire new works.

A curator's visual sense must be informed by scholarship, which accumulates through years of intense study of a specialized field. Robison's specialties include 18th-century Venetian art, which was featured in an exhibition he did in 1995 called "The Glory of Venice," and he was one of the first scholars to write about how varying qualities of paper can influence the artistry of prints. But the scholarly tradition in prints and drawings is different from painting departments, where curators tend to concentrate on specific fields such as northern baroque or Italian Renasissance. Prints-and-drawings people are generalists who must master the art from many countries over many centuries. To Robison, this sweeping terrain is part of the joy: "One day it's Rembrandt drawings, and the next it's the prints of Picasso."

While all of this is very scholarly, much of Robison's job requires engagement in the competitive world of solicitation. Although the National Gallery received nearly $92 million last fiscal year for salaries and other operating expenses from a federal appropriation, it gets no taxpayer money to acquire works for its permanent collection. That means all acquisitions must come either as gifts of art or as gifts of money for purchases.

Robison enjoys the challenge of building the gallery's collection because it taps into an entrepreneurial temperament that he realized he possessed only after giving up his career as a philosophy professor. He is a shrewd operator in a high-stakes game and possesses skills often associated with the world of business, including a single-minded aggressiveness that is sometimes perceived as arrogance. He has a taste for the relentless pursuit of art, a knack for befriending very wealthy donors, detailed knowledge of the art market–and he keeps up contacts here and in Western Europe among dealers and in the auction houses. He is capable of negotiating terms that will close a complicated deal, and he knows that the bottom line, measured in the works of art acquired, is what counts.

Bringing great works of art into the collection requires "knowledge, discipline, and courage," he says. "You need the knowledge to know what the opportunity is. You need the discipline not to waste your money on things that are not so important. And you need the courage to reach for it when something really great comes along."

Looking for a Big Score

Robison takes down from a shelf in his office a book cataloging the drawings of Albrecht Dürer, the German Renaissance artist whose works are among the most expensive in the world. It is the first of a six-volume catalogue raisonné, which has illustrations, scholarly notes, and the provenance on all Dürers known to have survived, about 1,500 in all.

Robison pulls out a sheet of dog-eared paper crowded with his tiny handwriting. Several of the entries are marked through with a line of black ink.

This, he says, is a scorecard that he drew up about 25 years ago. While most Dürers already were in museums, this page lists 34 that remained in private hands. Year by year he drew lines through entries as they went by gift or purchase into museum collections. Eighteen have made this passage to such places as the British Museum in London, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Morgan Library in New York.

Six of those lines brought particular satisfaction because those works have come to the National Gallery. Four were from the New York developer Ian Woodner and two from oil man Armand Hammer. That raises the gallery's total to ten.

"So far," Robison says, "I think we've done pretty well."

From the moment of their creation, great works of art begin a journey. Some do not survive–lost to fire and flood; destroyed in wars; damaged by vermin, mold, humidity, or too much light. Others pass through many owners, changing hands with economic depressions, wars, and the rise and fall of empires or with the private travails of collectors. Art auctions, it is said, are necessitated by the three D's: debt, death, and divorce.

As Robison's inventory of Dürers suggests, there is a tradition that the greatest treasures eventually find their way into museums. There they are cataloged and protected–saved for all time to be studied and enjoyed by everyone. For some artists this process is nearly complete. Fewer than half a dozen Michelangelo drawings are thought to be in private hands. But enough exquisite work by other artists remains in the homes and vaults of private collectors to keep curators like Robison in hot pursuit.

It's not always easy knowing who owns these works. Some collectors prefer anonymity, acting through agents, never disclosing their purchases, keeping secret the prices they pay. Robison knows that a couple of those Dürers are owned by a collector in New York. But the location of others is a mystery. One was last seen in the 1930s in Vienna, and another has been lost to sight since it was sold at Sotheby's in New York to an anonymous telephone bidder several years ago.

That's why good intelligence is one of a curator's assets. Robison keeps an ear to the ground listening for the tips and gossip that may lead to opportunities. He takes reconnaissance trips, making contacts with collectors, dealers, auction houses, art historians, and other curators. He takes the shuttle to New York a couple of times a month, but he also turns up in Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago. He travels to London three or four times a year as well as to Paris, Berlin, Munich, Venice, and Milan.

Curators engaged in building a collection over many years need a plan much like an architect's blueprint. Robison's plan has two facets. In areas that are already strong–the Italian Renaissance or 19th-century French art–he's always looking for works to enhance existing greatness. In other areas his intent is to fill gaps, like the lack of American drawings that he found upon his arrival. A big start on plugging that hole came in 1979, when he and John Wilmerding, then the gallery's curator of American paintings, secured nearly 300 drawings by 50 major American artists through a gift-and-purchase arrangement with John Davis Hatch, an art scholar and former museum director in Seattle and Norfolk.

Some of the gallery's aquisitions are gifts of art, some are purchased with targeted gifts of money, and some are bought with proceeds from gallery endowments; in 2004 total purchases amounted to nearly $18 million for all types of art. Some of the acquisition money at Robison's discretion in the prints-and-drawings department comes from an endowment left by Ailsa Mellon Bruce, Andrew Mellon's daughter, as well as a fund created from the estate of a University of Virginia architectural-history professor, Pete O'Neal, who also gave the gallery a magnificent collection of drawings. For bigger purchases, like those British mezzotints, Robison must compete with curators in painting and other fields who have their own wish lists for a share of the Patrons' Permanent Fund, an endowment that has been built over the years with money from the Mellon family and others.

A number of purchases during Robison's tenure have been especially memorable. In 1999, the gallery bought a rare German work produced in the 1430s by the first artist known to have made printed engravings. In 1997, it acquired at auction, for $315,000, a high-quality copper plate etched more than three centuries earlier by Rembrandt–a plate that had remained undiscovered because another artist had used the back side for his own, run-of-the-mill painting. Then there was the 1991 purchase, from the heirs of Ian Woodner, of a page once owned by Giorgio Varsari, a 16th-century Florentine artist who was the first to collect the works of other artists. He pasted their drawings in a large book and drew his own decorative frames around them, managing on this single page to preserve ten works by such notables as Sandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi.

Though less costly, a purchase in 1992 ranks as one of Robison's cleverest. In London for an upcoming auction at Sotheby's, he was in a back room skimming through drawings relegated to the end of the sale–items so obscure that they were not pictured in the auction catalog. His eye caught one called "The Gallant Gardener" by an anonymous artist with a presale estimate of $1,000 to $1,400. As he looked closely, it struck him that this was very likely a mistake–it probably was a valuable drawing by the French artist Antoine Watteau. Not wishing to call attention to his find, he simply asked for a photocopy and departed.

Rushing back to his hotel, Robison called his colleague Meg Grasselli, a Watteau expert, then faxed the image to her in Washington. By the time he got back to the gallery the next day, she had pieced together evidence to confirm the find. Robison told Carter Brown, who swore the trustees to secrecy in getting approval to make a substantial bid in case someone else made the same discovery. Robison then precluded bidding by a likely competitor, a dealer in Paris who was an expert on Watteau, by asking her to bid on the gallery's behalf.

A few days later the gallery was the high bidder at $2,800. The drawing's true value was more than $100,000.

Who Has the Art?

In looking at works of art in a museum like the National Gallery, you'll see little labels that give credit to the donors. They tell in a cryptic way the social history of wealth in America, because art collecting, like horse-racing, is a favorite avocation of people who have made lots of money.

The National Gallery's name was selected with the hope that it would attract donors more easily than if it were named after Andrew Mellon. The strategy has been a success. Nearly 1,400 individuals, couples, and organizations have given works to the gallery during its 64-year history.

It's no surprise, given the high cost of museum-quality art, that many of these people are very rich. Some, like Paul Mellon, acquired their fortunes by inheritance, but others made money in business enterprises. Take Mark Millard, who gave the gallery a superb collection of architectural books in the mid-1980s: A Hungarian who settled in New York, he was an investment banker with expertise in the financing of oil pipelines.

Other gifts come from inside the art world. Some are from artists or their estates, including prints and drawings from the heirs of John Marin, Richard Diebenkorn, Mark Rothko, and Roy Lichtenstein. The gallery also has agreements with three top print shops–Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, Graphicstudio in Tampa, and Crown Point Press in San Francisco–to donate one copy of all prints they produce by well-known artists. And the gallery is the repository for the Index of American Design, a group of about 18,000 watercolors of decorative-arts objects produced by out-of-work artists for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.

Some gifts come from employees of the gallery who have accumulated private collections. Notable gifts have been made by J. Carter Brown, former deputy director John Wilmerding, retired curator David Rust, and the late Gil Ravenel and his wife, the late Frances Smyth-Ravenel. Robison has donated a dozen drawings, prints, and illustrated books and hopes to give more.

Even art dealers, whose eyes usually focus on the bottom line, are capable of generosity. Robison tells of a call from a London dealer he'd asked to bid on a black chalk portrait at an auction in Avignon: "He said, 'You're going to be happy because we got the drawing. We got it at a very good price. And you're going to be even happier because I'm going to give it to you.' "

One of Robison's most important acquisitions illustrates how art collecting is not always limited to people with money. On the modest salary of an art-history professor, the late Julius Held accumulated a stellar collection of drawings, which was acquired by the gallery in a gift-and-purchase arrangement in 1981. A German immigrant who spent much of his career at Barnard College, Held used his expertise to make shrewd purchases in the galleries, auctions, and bookshops of New York and Europe during the 1940s and '50s, when many great things were available and before prices went on a steep rise. "He was a collector who was always in debt," says Robison. "He took out loans, and he paid over time. He was always trying to put together a bit of money to acquire the next thing. But he succeeded through a combination of knowledge, passion, and industry."

One thing that distinguishes the National Gallery from America's other great art museums is that most donors in its early years were from out of town. Washington–dominated by the federal government and lacking in great fortunes–had no philanthropists on the scale of those whose money and collections built the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, or the Art Institute of Chicago. Among the National Gallery's founding donors, Andrew Mellon was from Pittsburgh, Lessing Rosenwald and the Wideners were from Philadelphia, and the Kress brothers ran their nationwide chain of dime stores out of New York. Other early gifts came from a Bostonian connected with Goldman Sachs and from a Cleveland coal magnate who became a curator at Harvard's rare-books library.

The National Gallery, with its location on the Mall, continues to promote itself as the nation's museum and to bring donors from across the country into its sphere. Its 230 biggest current donors reside in 24 states. Fifty-four of them live in metropolitan New York, eleven are from Los Angeles, eight from San Francisco, and five from Palm Beach. But there also are people from Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Denver, Seattle, Santa Fe, Des Moines, Wilmington, and Richmond. •

Robison often visits these collectors and others hoping to convince them to donate money and works of art. One success has been in Little Rock, the home of Helen Porter and James Dyke. Dyke made a fortune in constructions materials, has spent some of it on a collection of modern art, and is a member of the gallery's Trustees' Council. "There are other places–Minneapolis, Detroit, Dallas, Fort Worth–where I have relationships I hope will flower," he says. "They haven't yet, but they might. Hope keeps up the energy level."

In cultivating collectors outside Washington, the gallery must confront the fact that many have commitments to support their hometown museums. Julian Ganz Jr., owner of a furniture-store chain in California, and his wife have given the National Gallery a nice Winslow Homer watercolor and four oil paintings, but most of their collection will go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The trick, says Robison, is not to get too greedy–being content to ask collectors to give some things to the National Gallery while giving others to their local institution.

There was a time when Washington had few serious art collectors. It was a rarity in the 1960s when Eugene and Agnes Meyer, the parents of the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, gave the National Gallery five John Marin watercolors that had been exhibited in the famous 1913 Armory Show in New York City that introduced modern art to America. But times have changed. The city now has numerous well-heeled, sophisticated collectors, and Robison spends a considerable amount of time courting them. Of those 230 top donors to the gallery, 99 live in this region.

That's why Washington collectors were well represented in an exhibition earlier this year of recently acquired prints, drawings, and illustrated books. Walking through the exhibition, Robison pointed out several local contributions–from Aaron Fleischman, a senior partner of the law firm Fleischman and Walsh; David Maxwell, a gallery trustee who is a former chair and chief executive officer of Fannie Mae, and his wife, Joan; attorney Lionel Epstein and former wife Sarah, who accumulated one of the world's best collections of Edvard Munch prints; and Evelyn Steffanson Nef, a former Georgetown psychoanalyst and widow of a well-to-do university professor who collected French art. The biggest Washington donor in the show is a collector Robison declines to identify. He is a man whose gifts of art and money over the past 15 years have included some of the gallery's most valuable additions in graphic arts–all given without any public attention.

The exhibition also included a Picasso etching from Robert and Clarice Smith. Robert Smith is a developer who built a company founded by his father, Charles E. Smith, into one of the region's real-estate powerhouses, with thousands of apartments and millions of square feet of office space in Crystal City and elsewhere. Smith has been a part of the gallery's leadership for more than two decades–as first chair of its Trustees' Council, as a member and chair of the board, and as head of fundraising campaigns. As a collector, he has ranged across painting, sculpture, prints, and drawings from several periods, including the Italian Renaissance, 17th-century Holland, and 18th-century Venice. Some of those works already have been given or promised to the gallery.

The Smiths are among the Washingtonians who appeared on this year's list of the world's top 200 collectors published by ARTnews. The others are Aaron Fleischman; Mitchell and Steven Rales, brothers who control the Danaher Corporation, a large manufacturer of tools and other products; Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and his wife, Sharon; and Robert Kogod, a son-in-law of Charles E. Smith who has shared the leadership of the company with Robert Smith.

Another gift in the show came from Ruth Cole Kainen, who paired with her late husband, Jacob, to make up one of Washington's best collecting teams. Jacob was for many years a curator of graphic arts at the Smithsonian as well as a noted painter and printmaker. Ruth, whose family in Oregon was in the lumber business, met him at a luncheon here in 1968, where they discovered a mutual interest in art. Over the years they put together a collection stretching from Rembrandt to Jackson Pollock. Among the 631 works of art they've donated to the National Gallery is a group by the German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner that is the finest ever assembled in the United States.

Also in the exhibition last spring was the ghostly presence of Paul Mellon, the greatest of all Washington collectors. Mellon, who died in 1999, showered the gallery with money and art over several decades–paying for the East Building, along with his sister, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, and donating, with his wife, Bunny, more than 1,100 works of art.

Robison has high praise for Mellon's gentle personal style, generosity, and taste; he remembers that Mellon always kept a hammer and nails nearby in case he wanted to switch the pictures on the walls of his various homes. But Mellon also figured in one of the bigger disappointments of Robison's career. For many years the gallery assumed it would eventually get most of his collection of British art, much of which was on long-term loan and hung in its hallways. But Mellon shocked everyone. He decided that most of it would go to Yale, his alma mater, as the centerpiece of a new museum. For Robison, one of his sadder days was to see so many great pieces removed from the walls of the gallery and go to New Haven.

The Courting Dance

Shortly after joining the National Gallery in 1973, Robison was invited to a small dinner party at the Georgetown home of Wallace Holladay, a Washington real-estate developer, and his wife, Wilhelmina, cofounders of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The other guest, an old friend of the Holladays' from New York, was Ian Woodner, whom Robison knew only by reputation. Though trained at Harvard as an architect, Woodner had turned to development, making money building apartments and office buildings in New York and Washington. The Holladays were introducing the two men for another reason. Woodner had a great collection of Old Master drawings.

Robison and Woodner enjoyed each other's company, and the evening ended with the collector inviting the young curator to New York to see his drawings. Before long Robison was in Manhattan–first in Woodner's office, then at his home–seeing the art, and Woodner was stopping by to be shown around the National Gallery. About ten years later, in 1983, Robison arranged for an exhibition at the gallery devoted to Woodner's collection.

Museums mount such exhibitions not only for their artistic value but because they cement relationships–signaling that a collector should consider donating all of the works being shown. Woodner was not ready for that, but he did donate a drawing by the 18th-century French artist Pierre-Antoine Baudouin in line with the gallery's policy requiring at least one gift in conjunction with any full-scale exhibition of works owned by a private collector.

Another thing the National Gallery can offer is expertise. Though many collectors become very knowledgeable, they often appreciate advice from people like Robison who know what's coming onto the market and who have good judgment about a work's quality, authenticity, significance, and value. When Robison finds something the gallery would love to have but cannot afford, he turns to collectors he knows, asking them to buy it and donate it. But it's fine too if they want to take it home and live with it a few years–with nothing more than the implied promise that it will be given to the gallery later. "I try to be flexible about that," he says. "There are many ways to do things, and I want to play all the strings in the orchestra."

Robison senses that some collectors, while fond of their purchases, see themselves as temporary stewards of cultural treasures that eventually should go into museums and be accessible to the public–something that is especially true of Old Master works whose provenance may stretch back over hundreds of years and many owners: "It's as if these objects are not entirely theirs, as if they come to see themselves as just one pearl on a string of owners, as if they know that they are not going to own them forever."

This trajectory, Robison says, is illustrated by a Picasso etching, "The Frugal Repast," given to the gallery in 2003 by Robert and Clarice Smith. "Over the years when I would visit their home and see it, Clarice would always say, 'You're going to get that over my dead body.' They both loved it and enjoyed it for 20 years, but they eventually decided it was time for the object to move on. Now it has come to us as a gift."

Curators also need an understanding of how deals with collectors can be structured for tax benefits. The gallery has both in-house counsel and lawyers at Sullivan & Cromwell in New York to work with a collector's tax experts. Such matters are hinted at if a work has an inscription indicating it is a "partial" gift. This usually means the donor is stretching deductibility out over several years or has given part of the painting now and promised the rest after death. It may also mean that a collector keeps a work at home for part of the year, and the gallery has custody for the remainder.

The gallery also must be sensitive to the fact that collectors, even very rich ones, may have financial obligations. They may be willing to donate some works but feel a need to generate cash for other philanthropy or to pass on to their children by putting some of their works up for sale. The children, who may not care about art, may favor cashing in their parents' entire collection by putting it on the auction block.

An example of how such problems can be avoided involves the collection of drawings owned by Ian Woodner. The National Gallery had no written agreement with Woodner when he died in 1990. "Ian was like Picasso," says Robison. "He just could not let go." His two daughters, one of whom lived in Washington, agreed that their father favored giving the drawings to the gallery, but he left a tangled, highly leveraged estate. It would be difficult for them to let the gallery have everything as a gift.

The solution: The gallery purchased two of Woodner's greatest works–the Giorgio Varsari page and a drawing by the 16th-century Florentine Benvenuto Cellini–at a below-market figure that was undisclosed but thought by experts to be between $10 and $15 million. The daughters in turn agreed to donate 141 other works, some immediately and some over a number of years. The gallery also agreed to celebrate the gift with an exhibition once every decade for 50 years. Even now the daughters come and ask to look at their father's drawings.

Although the woodner gift was publicized, the National Gallery is willing to protect the identity of more-discreet donors. The desire for a low profile is usually driven by two concerns. Using donors' names exposes them to the threat of theft because they can be assumed to have other valuable works at home. And it suggests the kind of wealth and generosity that will attract hordes of fundraisers. "Suddenly," says Robison, "there would be lots of bees buzzing around the honey pot."

Other donors crave the spotlight, and the gallery is happy to play the game this way as well–laying on elegant parties filled with VIPs and alerting the press to a donor's gift. Armand Hammer, the California oil man who had few peers as an international wheeler-dealer and publicity seeker, got this treatment for years before a tough negotiation brought his collection of drawings to the gallery in 1987. It is easy to imagine that Hammer, who died in 1990, enjoyed every minute of the attention–he was the sort of man who carried aboard his private jet a painting by Rembrandt, which he unloaded wherever he went and set up on an easel to impress people he met.

The gallery's relationship with Hammer began in 1970, shortly after some of his drawings were exhibited at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. The Washington Post panned the exhibition, prompting Hammer to accept an offer from the National Gallery to advise him on refining his collection. A quid pro quo was soon in effect between Hammer and J. Carter Brown. The gallery's curators, including Robison, would point him to the best works coming onto the market on the promise that any of those he acquired would eventually be given to the gallery.

The gallery kept its end of the bargain, providing advice for Hammer's purchases. In 1987, with Hammer's collection growing in quality, the gallery continued the bonding by including some of his works in an exhibition.

For the gallery, Hammer had value beyond his collection. For decades he had done oil business with the Soviet Union. When the gallery was hoping to borrow works from Russian museums for exhibitions, it was Hammer who accompanied Carter Brown and negotiated the loans.

Hammer's single greatest contribution was donating the $1.1 million that allowed the gallery to buy a "cartoon" by Raphael, the Florentine Renaissance master, from the heirs of the Earl of Leicester in 1987. A cartoon is a drawing on paper that an artist creates as a way of transferring an image onto a wood panel, canvas, or other surface before painting; pinholes are pricked along the lines on the paper, and charcoal dust is brushed over it, leaving behind lines on the wood. Such cartoons are extremely rare: The Raphael, which was a drawing used in painting "La Belle Jardinière," a madonna now in the Louvre, is the only full-scale Renaissance cartoon in the United States. It took Robison several years to negotiate the purchase and to acquire a permit for it to leave England.

By the mid-1980s, as Hammer grew older, he and Carter Brown talked about formalizing their original deal. The stakes were high. With guidance from Robison and others at the gallery, Hammer had bought some wonderful art. His was the only private collection in America that included drawings by the big three of the Italian Renaissance–Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael.

One sticking point in the negotiations required some finesse. Hammer not only wanted space in the gallery set aside for his collection, but he wanted the room to bear his name. Because the gallery had not been named for Andrew Mellon, its policy was not to name rooms after other donors.

The solution was a stretch, but satisfied the old oil man. A small space in the West Building, which had been used to store tapestries, would be transformed into a permanent location for his collection. Part of it would house the Raphael cartoon, which was so fragile that it could be exhibited only a few months each year and at extremely low light levels, and the remainder of the space would contain a rotating selection of Hammer's other drawings. Technically the space would not be named and nothing would be carved in stone, but there would be a sign at the entrance that read THE ARMAND HAMMER COLLECTION.

Robison remembers how time-consuming it was to work out a final contract with Hammer. Many versions of the contract went back and forth between attorneys for Hammer and the gallery, and finally a one-on-one meeting between Hammer and Carter Brown was scheduled for the signing. Hammer was to touch down in his private jet at National Airport, and Brown was to meet him there.

But the night before, in going through the list of 48 works to be donated, Robison noticed that Hammer had removed one–a Leonardo da Vinci drawing that was one of the most valuable in the collection. He told Brown, who was not happy. Confronted about this at the airport, Hammer said he wanted to keep the drawing and exhibit it with another Leonardo that he owned.

Robison remembers Brown coming back to recount what he'd said to Hammer: "We had a deal–we would find things for you to help you improve your collection, and you would give them to us. We found that drawing. We could have bought it ourselves or recommended it to some other collector. If I have to go back to my trustees and tell them you have reneged on this drawing, I don't know what they will do about the whole deal." After much back and forth, Hammer returned the Leonardo to the list.

In 1987 the gallery opened an exhibition of the collection in its special room in the West Building, where it remains. Hammer paid for an opening-night party, his generosity was praised in the press, and Brown and Robison were content in knowing that they had upheld one of the most scared principles of art museums: "When the smoke clears, make sure you have the pictures."