Critical Appreciation: Robert H. Smith, Arts Patron
On Washington's façades, the Smith name is pervasive. It adorns offices (the Charles E. Smith company holds more than 18 million square feet of office space in D.C.) and apartments (especially in Crystal City, which the Smith family built from the ground up.) In large letters, the family name of Robert H Smith, who died Tuesday at 81, also graces the exteriors of schools, like the University of Maryland school of business,and a performing arts center on the same campus named after Smith's wife, Clarice. But of all the places that bear Smith's name, it's seen in the smallest font on placards in the National Gallery: "Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert H. Smith."
Smith inherited his real-estate empire from his father, Charles. And thanks to that fortune, the National Gallery will now inherit Smith's collection of art—considered one of the most important private holdings of Renaissance bronze sculpture. Throughout his life, Smith also gave the gift of time and leadership to the National Gallery. A dedicated patron of the arts, he devoted 21 years to the institution in leadership positions from trustee to president, a position he held from 1993 to 2003. During his presidency, Smith directed the National Gallery through a period of expansion, opening the Dutch Cabinet Galleries, the Sculpture Garden, and the West Building's ground floor Sculpture Galleries.
Smith's sculpture collection, which was exhibited at the National Gallery in 2003, includes works from Giovanni Bologna, Giovanni Francesco Susini, and Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi, among others. He also donated paintings and a collection of works on paper to the gallery, comprised mostly of Italian and Dutch artists, but also including major names such as Ingres and Picasso. When he began his collection, Smith was in good company—his next-door neighbor in Fauquier County, Va., was Paul Mellon, another major collector, and the National Gallery patron who commissioned architect I.M. Pei and donated funds for the East Building.
According to the Washington Post, Smith gave $30 million to the University of Maryland performing arts center and $15 million to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home, throughout his life. Other historic sites that received contributions included James Madison's home, Montpelier, Mount Vernon, the Lincoln Cottage in Washington, and Gettysburg National Military Park.
The National Gallery recalled a quote of Smith from the 25th anniversary dinner of The Circle, the Gallery's membership group: "We are here to celebrate the great power of philanthropy. The course of human history is determined not by what happens in the skies, but by what takes place in the hearts of men and women. It is important to know not only how to make a living, but also how to make a life. We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give."