George Gordon leaves deep impact on GVSU art collection, culture

George and Barbara Gordon Gallery
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

The legacy of the late George Gordon in Grand Valley's comprehensive art collection is one of generosity, vision and a strong belief in the value of publicly displaying art, said Nathan Kemler, director of Galleries and Collections.

When Gordon, who died in May, and his wife, Barbara, made an initial gift in 1998 of Mathias Alten works from their private collection, they played a central role setting into motion a culture of prioritizing arts at Grand Valley, Kemler said.

"That set a tone in the community with peers and other art collectors and cultural institutions, making a statement of the merit to giving here," Kemler said.

Now Grand Valley not only has the distinction of holding the world’s largest public collection of Alten's work as well as the entire artist Catalogue Raisonné and published scholarship, but GVSU also has the second largest art collection in the state, Kemler said.

Since 1998, the Gordons have given more than 100 Alten works to Grand Valley, Kemler said. Two Alten gallery spaces are named for them. Their influence also included three different Alten-related endowments — two started by them, Kemler said, and one inspired by the work they had done. And much more.

"George and Barbara have really been the ideal donors and collectors that any museum would want to have on their side," Kemler said.

In Grand Valley's case, that museum is a borderless one, where works of art fill the grounds and there is a commitment to displaying as much of the collection as possible to encourage engagement with art and visual literacy. The Gordons consistently wanted to ensure art was seen and not in storage, Kemler said.

George Gordon
George Gordon died May 21 at age 96.
Image credit - Courtesy photo

Kemler recalled George Gordon as a strong ambassador for Grand Valley's art stewardship who had a strong vision and enthusiastically saw it through.

"Enthusiastic" was a word Kemler regularly used to describe Gordon, whether it was as an art collector or as an aficionado of the natural world. Kemler noted one of his last conversations with Gordon was about a nature-related book, "The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben.

Kemler said one of the reasons Gordon was so drawn to Alten was because of the Michigan environmental landscapes depicted by the impressionist artist referred to as the Dean of Michigan painters.

"For George, art was a really direct way to share the beauty of the natural landscape," Kemler said.


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