In the end, more than 30 works ended up in major collections, including the Brooklyn Museum
, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
, the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, and the Birmingham Museum of Art in Henry’s home state of Alabama. And what may be Henry’s most ambitious and challenging work—an installation consisting of 80 elements retracing, more or less, the development of modern painting—was acquired
two years ago by the Museum of Modern Art
after the institution’s longtime trustee Agnes Gund saw the work and advocated for its acquisition.
“I, through kismet, was on the receiving end of an email written by Beatrice and Alanna offering the Museum of Modern Art a work called Primer Sets of a Revealingly Graphic, Personal History of Western Painting…by the artist Dale Henry, of whom I had never heard,” Laura Hoptman, a curator in MoMA’s department of painting and sculpture, said during last month’s panel. “The end of this shaggy dog story is a happy one, and that is that the Museum of Modern Art acquired the work, but as God is my witness, I will tell you how extraordinary that is.”
Indeed, for an artist who felt so completely shunned by the art world that he deliberately took himself out of it (the exhibition of Henry’s work at Pioneer Works in 2014 was titled “The Artist Who Left New York
”), to be posthumously embraced by that community is a rare reversal. More often, artists begin the process of positioning their work and developing institutional interest during their lifetimes, in hopes that their relatives and representatives will have an easier time spent preserving and promoting their legacies. In Henry’s case, the challenge faced by Heiss and Johnson was, in many ways, to build a legacy from scratch.
“I have found remarkable interest and positive reception from museums to the project,” Johnson said. “I believe this is due, in large part, to Alanna Heiss’s influential role in the art world, and the resulting interest in her projects, and trust in her vision. The other reason [is] the unique and dramatic quality of Dale’s story.…Dale synthesized many artistic concerns of the time in his explorations of the medium of painting, and I think institutions are excited to contextualize his work, and the work of his peers, in their collections.”