The gift of art

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

On March 21, the town’s two largest art institutions — Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the San Diego Museum of Art — celebrated a grand-scale gift from the estate of longtime La Jolla residents Vance E. Kondon and his wife, Elisabeth Giesberger.

The occasion was a preview of selected works from the Kondon-Giesberger Collection for museum trustees and media, with brief introductions.

A devoted art collector, Dr. Kondon served several terms on MCASD’s Board of Trustees between 1971 and 1981, and his bequest to the contemporary museum includes 30 important minimalist and abstract works from the 1950s to the early 1980s. SDMA received 48 German Expressionist paintings, drawings and prints from the modernist period around World War I.

Kondon had a history of loaning pieces to local venues, including the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art (now MCASD-LJ) and SDMA. But when he and his Dutch-born wife relocated to the Netherlands, the collection went with them. Now, since the deaths of both of them (his in 1997, hers in 2011) many of the works in the $40 million collection he amassed over decades in San Diego have come back home.

“The gift was a complete surprise,” said MCASD Director Hugh Davies. “Vance Kondon was a passionate art-lover, but after he left for Amsterdam in the early ‘90s, though we always sent him copies of our newsletters, we thought he was through with us. This is literally a dream come true, to have a collection of this caliber fall into our lap.”

SDMA Director Roxana Velasquez spoke of the relationship between philanthropists and museums. “Collectors can buy art,” she said, “but they cannot possess it.”

Some of the minimalist works are now on view downtown as part of MCASD’s “Iconic” show, curated by Kathryn Kanjo.

“I took the most prominent theme in the collection, ‘reductive abstraction’ — reducing art to its essential qualities, line and form — and based the show around that, using only pieces that fit that theme,” Kanjo said. “All of these artists are interested in math and systems. Their pieces are very contemplative; they want you to spend time analyzing what they’re about.”

The German Expressionist works, which John Marciari, SDMA’s Curator of European Art, called “shockingly good,” will be featured in a comprehensive show of German Expressionism called “The Human Beast,” opening at SDMA July 21.