$34 million gift to Zimmerli Art Museum represents largest donation in Rutgers history
The University is now home to more than 17,000 pieces of Soviet nonconformist art
The Zimmerli Art Museum attained a new level of international prestige today after Rutgers announced the single largest gift in University history.
Valued at more than $34 million, the gift is comprised of 17,300 pieces of Soviet artwork, created during the mid-to-late-20th century. The high profile collection will be accompanied by a $10 million endowment to the Zimmerli, intended to promote global access to the art through exhibitions, publications, conservation and scholarship.
Nevin Kessler, the president of the Rutgers University Foundation, said this donation makes the Rutgers museum the world's principal site for studying the art produced by the USSR across four decades of authoritarian leadership.
“Any institution would have been overjoyed to receive this unparalleled collection of artworks, with the endowment to make them accessible in perpetuity to scholars and the public,” Kessler said. “The choice of Rutgers reaffirms the donors’ longstanding commitment to this university while testifying to the outstanding work our curators and researchers have done over the years to promote awareness and appreciation of this highly significant artistic legacy.”
The artwork originated from the personal collection of Nancy Dodge who, alongside her late husband, managed to amass the largest collection of nonconformist Soviet art in the world. Through a range of mediums, including paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations and videos, the scope of the collection reaches beyond Russia and into nonconformist art created in republics like Ukraine, Latvia and Armenia.
The remainder of the Dodge collection will now join 4,000 pieces that the couple donated to Rutgers back in 1991.
Thomas Sokolowski, the new director of the Zimmerli, said this original gift instantly gave Rutgers a place in the international art world.
“It revealed to the public the astonishing and heroic story of the Dodges’ efforts to locate, collect and preserve a vast body of work that was officially not even supposed to exist,” Sokolowski said. “It is staggering to have the entire collection brought together at last.”
The collection represents a diverse counterculture that ranges from Nikita Khrushchev and Joseph Stalin to the end of Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership. Even for experts who have specialized in these eras of Soviet history, this artwork holds no shortage of new insights.
Renown art critics have gone as far as to credit Norton Dodge with single-handedly saving contemporary Soviet art from oblivion, according to the New Yorker.
To obtain the pieces that now reside at Rutgers, the collector made countless trips to the Soviet Union, forging connections with artists that consistently put themselves at risk for their artwork. He reportedly stopped visiting Russia after one of his friends, artist Evgeny Rukhin, was killed in a suspicious apartment fire that was likely staged by the KGB.
Nancy Dodge said she and her husband felt strongly about conserving and bringing visibility to these obscure and often controversial pieces of art.
“My husband Norton and I felt it was our mission to bring to light these remarkable works that had been consigned to obscurity and to honor artists of exceptional talent who had been suppressed and defamed,” Dodge said. “We entrusted Rutgers with an initial gift from the collection because we believed the University deeply understood our goals and had both the scholarly resources and the institutional will to realize our purpose. Now, more than a quarter of a century later, I know our confidence was well placed. I am very pleased to donate the collection in its entirety to Rutgers, as the best and only place for it to reside.”
Debasish Dutta, the chancellor of Rutgers—New Brunswick, said that with this gift, the Zimmerli has become utterly unique — not only among university art institutions but in the world of museums.
“This remarkable gift underscores our university’s cultural and educational value to our global society,” Dutta said.