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Art, interrupted

How the Nasher was almost the Ackland


It is easy to forget just how young the Nasher Museum of Art is. The modernist building is as much a campus landmark as any other building on campus, and the breadth of the collections would seem to indicate decades of curating and compiling. But the museum only opened in 2005, celebrating its 10th anniversary with a variety of festivities this year.

Half a century ago, however, Duke came very close to building a different art museum—a museum showcasing the art collection of philanthropist William Hayes Ackland, who left more than a million dollars and all of his art to Duke when he died in 1940. But Duke’s Board of Trustees rejected the gift, going against the wishes of President William Preston Few, and after a lengthy legal battle, the donation went a little further down Tobacco Road. The Ackland Museum of Art opened its doors at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1958, and Duke’s first art museum did not come until years later.

The Board of Trustees’ decision made quite a splash at the time. With the minutes of the September 1941 meeting sealed and no public statement made, no one knew why Duke had suddenly decided to reject what had appeared to be quite an impressive gift.

“When Duke University, which likes money, wouldn’t have it—that’s a queer thing,” former North Carolina Governor Cameron Morrison told the Winston-Salem Journal in 1942.

Decades later, the circumstances of the rejection are still a bit murky on the surface. A plaque at the Ackland describes the reasoning for the decision as unknown. But the papers were quietly unsealed in the University Archives in the 1980s—and the story they tell is one of a close friendship, a bitter power struggle and an intense debate over the University’s principles.

'A fine-souled man'

William Hayes Ackland was born just outside of Nashville, Tenn., in 1855. Although his family had enough money to send Ackland to Vanderbilt University, they were not extremely wealthy—but Ackland invested shrewdly after graduating and become quite rich, allowing him to begin traveling and collecting art. He was also passionate about literature, publishing a novel and several books of poetry.

But by the time he reached his late 70s, Ackland began to wonder about his legacy. He had no children and was not particularly close with his extended family. He wanted a permanent home for his art, he decided, and a southern university would be the perfect location. By donating the funds and artwork for a museum, he would not only contribute to the cultural enrichment of the South—a cause he took seriously—he would also ensure that his name and memory lived on.

So in 1936, Ackland wrote letters to the presidents of three southern schools—Duke, UNC and Rollins College in Florida. He sent the following handwritten message on a half sheet of paper in his looping script to Few:

“I am the owner of some valuable paintings and statuary and have thought of building and endowing a gallery in connection with a southern university. Before making my will, I should like to know whether such a gift would be acceptable and under what conditions the gift would be received? The style of architecture is to be in keeping with other buildings and the site I would expect the university to furnish. In regard to other particulars—which do not occur to me at the moment—I should be glad to be informed through the authorities.”

Just a few months earlier, Few had asked Duke’s architect about ensuring that the art department had enough space on the fledgling West Campus, still a work in progress at the time. He jumped, then, at the offer for an entire museum.

“Duke University is greatly interested in developing here an art center and would be highly delighted to have the paintings and statues that you are thinking of presenting,” he responded.

The two men exchanged letters for several months. In April 1937, Few invited Ackland to visit him in Durham, and their business relationship became a friendship. The two discussed plans for the museum, but also spent their evenings talking art, literature and politics. Few later recalled how he became “strongly attached” to Ackland during that visit, and the appreciation seemed to be mutual.

“You can be sure that the impression you left behind is as pleasant as any that you could have taken away,” Few wrote to Ackland after he departed. “Some active contacts with a young and strong institution like this would no doubt be stimulating to you. It is, indeed, a sort of fountain of eternal youth, I find. And those who drink of it either are or at least live like the young.”

Indeed, Ackland became quite attached to Duke’s “fountain of eternal youth,” continuing to correspond with Few and his wife for years.

Despite his connection to Duke, Ackland still visited UNC once. The verdict, however, was less than positive—he wrote to Few that he “was disappointed, and did not like public supported universities anyhow.”

Ackland and Few devoted considerable time to negotiating the specifics of the museum. But the path was not straightforward. Ackland was insistent that he leave his money to Duke in the form of an endowed trust, with an appointed set of trustees responsible for investing the money and maintaining the museum on Duke’s campus.

Few hesitated on this point. It would be easier for Duke, he told Ackland, if the University could receive the money outright.

“It is a policy of ours to make money given to us go as far and last as long as is humanly possible,” he wrote to Ackland, trying to convince him to donate the funds without any other stipulations.

Ackland’s estate was valued at nearly $1,300,000 at the time, or more than $21,000,000 today.


'Posthumous vanity'

If Few was hesitant to accept the funds under the proposed arrangement, some members of the Board of Trustees were fiercely skeptical—with William Perkins, the namesake of Perkins Library, leading the pack.

“The will of Mr. Ackland puts his property in the hands of trustees who are to establish and maintain the memorial…. In this way, you see, if Duke University were selected it would have on its campus a building thus under the control of those not connected with the institution,” Perkins wrote to Few in June 1937. “Although the trustees would, in all probability, endeavor to make this dual arrangement work, yet an element inheres which, it seems to me, would seriously threaten its value to the University.”

Discussions continued for several years. Although Few conceded that the arrangement was perhaps not ideal, he felt that the donation was more than worth the trouble. Perkins, however, did not budge.

Regardless, Few assured Ackland that the memorial museum would be built. He would make sure, he said, that things would be straightened out with the Board of Trustees.

Ackland passed away in February 1940, at the age of 84. His will read as follows:

“My trustees shall cause to be erected a memorial building in the form of a gallery or museum, to be known as the ‘William Hayes Ackland Memorial' and in which my trustees shall place and maintain on permanent exhibition all of my tangible personal property and effects reserved for that purpose in accordance with provisions hereinbefore contained, and such other objects of art as may be added thereto as hereinafter provided. As a part of or adjacent to such memorial building, I direct my trustees to have an apse erected, in which my remains shall be permanently interred in a marble sarcophagus beneath a recumbent statue…. I direct that said building or buildings be erected upon the campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, or, if permission therefor cannot be obtained, then upon the campus of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.”

Few was “deeply distressed” at the death of his friend. Immediately, he reached out to Ackland’s estate manager, asking what Duke could do to best build the memorial museum as Ackland wished.

But it was not to be. The children of Ackland’s deceased brother were quick to take the matter to court, arguing that they should receive the money. And while Few was willing to fight for the museum, Perkins was ready to fight against it.

For Perkins, the matter was no longer just a question of Duke’s financial and managerial independence over the museum. It was also a question of respect. To bury Ackland on Duke’s campus as extravagantly as he asked—in a marble sarcophagus complete with a statue—would be to bestow on him an honor that Perkins did not think he deserved. The only people buried on the University’s campus at the time were members of the Duke family themselves, in the Chapel. What Ackland had requested was “much more of a prominent memorial and mausoleum to himself than any gift to Duke… posthumous vanity,” Perkins wrote to Few. “Gifts and art centers are both highly desired, but not at the cost of the principle here involved and with the establishment of a precedent that is most likely to prove embarrassing in the future.”

Few responded with a long letter, six single-spaced pages, in which he fiercely maintained that Duke should fight in court to receive the money. The gift would allow Duke to advance far in the arts, he said—and it was also important on a personal level, as he could “not escape the conviction that I, at least, am under an obligation to him and his memory to do what I can to see that his wishes are carried out.”

Few ignored Perkins and began cooperating with the lawyers in charge of Ackland’s estate, preparing to bring the museum to Duke. But in October 1940, he died unexpectedly—and with him died Duke’s fight for Ackland’s art.

A tale of two museums

His successor as president, Robert Flowers, was not as invested in the museum. There were some members of the Board of Trustees who felt the University should continue the legal battle—including George Allen, an alumnus who was a prominent official at the Department of State.

“Duke University is under moral obligation to accept the bequest, out of respect for the memory of Dr. Few if for no other reason,” he argued. The Duke family themselves would have supported the “relatively small but important” Ackland memorial as part of the much larger gift, and “the people of North Carolina and the South would regret exceedingly to know that the Trustees of Duke University had deprived them of the opportunity of adding a notable contribution to the cultural development of the State.”

But Allen was not convincing enough. Perkins successfully lobbied the other Trustees, and in September 1941, Duke officially rejected the gift.

To those outside the Board of Trustees, the decision seemed a sudden reversal, and newspapers across the state reported the unexpected turn of events. Ackland’s estate lawyers were shocked. Though some trustees drafted a statement explaining their choice, Perkins was adamant that they not release it—saying it would “produce greater trouble than any that now exists.”

For decades, then, the history remained secret. Ackland’s lawyers contacted UNC, who were more than willing to take the gift and fight the legal battle against Ackland’s descendants. The university ultimately won, and in 1958, the museum opened its doors in Chapel Hill—complete with a marble sarcophagus for Ackland.

In the 1960s, Duke opened a comparatively modest art museum on East Campus. Nearly 40 years later, the University received $7.5 million from alumnus Raymond Nasher, the largest of several donations that went toward building the new museum on Central Campus.

Today, the Nasher and the Ackland collaborate regularly. The story of the donation is an interesting quirk of their history, rather than the foundation of any sort of rivalry.

“It doesn’t sting,” said Wendy Hower, director of engagement and marketing for the Nasher, who recently researched the story for the museum’s 10th anniversary book. “It doesn’t sting because we, as a staff, really admire and respect the Ackland…. The bottom line is that there is room in this area for several art museums.”

William Ackland—“a man of culture and refinement” who “could hold his own with cultivated men anywhere,” in Few’s words —would likely agree.


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