Robert Edsel's Blog

Archive for June, 2008


June 26th, 2008 | 5:36 pm

(Lieutenant Charles Parkhurst, 1913-2008)

One of the greats, Charles Parkhurst, has died. He was 95 years of age.  Charles had an incredibly distinguished career as a museum director, curator, and art historian which spanned more than 50 years.  During those years he worked at the National Gallery of Art, The Baltimore Museum of Art, the Albright-Knox AA Gallery in Buffalo, and the Princeton University Art Museum, among others.  He was also an outstanding educator of art with teaching positions at Oberlin College and Williams College.

But we will forever remember and honor Chuck for his service not just to our nation as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during World War ll, but his critically important work as a Monuments Officer.  Beginning in May 1945 Parkhurst served as the Deputy Chief of the Seventh Army MFAA section of the U.S. Military Government in Germany. He helped coordinate the numerous tasks of the Monuments Men in post-war Germany centered on restitutions of the hundreds of thousand of stolen works of art and other cultural belongings stolen by Hitler and the Nazis and located by the Monuments Men.

But Charles Parkhurst’s service was much greater. In addition to standing with his fellow Monuments Men on the principle that no works of art should be removed from Germany,  in the face of great controversy, he also played a key role in jump-starting cultural life in Germany after the war by creating exhibitions which allowed local citizens to see works of art even though German museums were closed due to damage during the war.

For his wartime efforts as a Monuments Officer, Charles was named a Chevalier, Legion of Honor by France.

(Photo taken on my visit with Charles Parkhurst in 2006.)

Charles was so fortunate to have a magnificent lady and art scholar in her own right, for his wife, Carol, and a wonderful family.  It was one of the personal highlights of my work these past 7 years having the opportunity to meet Chuck and Carol two years ago at their charming home in Amherst.  Knowing he was ill, and of course the age of all the Monuments Men and women, underscored the sense of urgency to our effort to seek Senate and the House of Representatives support for our Resolution honoring the men and women of the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives section.

We will miss Charles Parkhurst, and all he stood for in the education, appreciation and protection of art and culture, enormously.  Our condolences go out to his family and numerous close friends.

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June 25th, 2008 | 6:25 pm

Not everyone among us is fortunate to be blessed with the presence of one of our parents during our adulthood; fewer still the presence of both. I was particularly lucky to have both in such good health until I reached 51 years of age when my father died. Very lucky. Now my energy and attention is focused on just my mom and the ongoing “grand dialogue” that has been taking place over these many years. It is a sweet time in our relationship, with the hardships of roles-her the mother, me the oldest son-now behind us allowing the friendship and love that was always there to fully emerge and age like a fine Bordeaux wine. I am, of course, partial to MY mom, but I have such admiration for the courage and fortitude of all mothers. When one pauses for a moment to consider all the tribulations they must overcome, the leadership role that so often befalls them, it is astonishing how effective and at the same time caring they truly are.

I hear stories from my friends and other loved ones…of moms that raise families on their own, oftentimes working at least one job. Others tell me of illnesses their moms have had to overcome while watching over children and taking care of a husband. Sometimes, the illness can’t be overcome and must become a part of that person’s life — along with all the other functions a mother performs. I recall my mother telling me about her mom being in a wheelchair all her teenage and adult life as just one example. How do they do it?

Moms to me represent an endless source of energy; a depth of compassion and understanding that simply can’t be matched. (How many times have you opened up to your mom and just the friendly warm reception to what you have to say and a hug left you feeling better?) They anticipate; they are often mind readers. They can absorb more blows than any prize fighter and emerge unscathed after little time. (How do they do that?) They are ALWAYS interested in you and what you are doing. They act as the glue for a family, over and over and over: glue between kids and their fathers, between siblings, and all other relatives. They always relish a holiday and birthday even when you don’t…leaving you happy they did because once in the moment, you realize how much you would have missed had it been left to you to ignore. They always make time to be with you.and they are genuinely glad to do so. Moms make delicious things.cakes to show you their love, chicken noodle soup to show their concern, and home cooked meals ANYTIME just because…

I end where I began…the friendship, the absence of tension, the broadening of topics easily discussed, the warmth, the history of family, the guardian of is an endless list of good things which, like the most valuable things in life, has no monetary price. If you have had this experience, or if you still have it, you are rich beyond measure. My mom has made me a very wealthy man…and a son with boundless gratitude for having her in particular for a mom.

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June 17th, 2008 | 3:01 pm

The great philanthropist and collector, Paul Mellon, once said something to the effect: “There’s nothing wrong with this country that wouldn’t be helped by a 5 minute respite”. I think Paul, in a moment of simple clarity, observed the fast forward society in which we live and the many ill effects of that pace. Many things fall victim to being so busy “doing” instead of, at least periodically, just “being”, not the least of which is allowing time to appreciate just how lucky most of us are to have good health. Like many old adages, this one is particularly profound: You don’t realize the value of good health until you are without it.

Our family lost a dear friend suddenly about a week ago. She was a great lady of keen intellect and wisdom with a focused ambition to improve those skills she loved as far as her ability allowed, and then some. She was intense, yes, and I find such focus and intensity is often misconstrued and judgments in error formed. Our friend understood that long ago and pretty much rolled with the punches. Life delivered to her several tragedies that need not be mentioned, but they were horrible losses which she somehow found the inner strength to manage through. “Manage through” in plain English meant just finding the courage to get out of bed day after day when every ounce of her being argued against it. It took a long time before her smile returned, but it did return and so did her enthusiasm for living. It was inspirational. She was inspirational.

I was pondering this several nights ago during one of my brief respites, thinking about how important it is to grieve, to reach out to our friends and loved ones ALL THE TIME, not just during such horribly difficult times. It allowed me to reflect for a moment on the items on my “to do” list and see with an invigorated perspective how little many of those “to do’s” amounted to very little in the grand scheme of things, and how few things that matter greatly were on my list. I thought again about “good health” and how fortunate those of us who have it truly are….and it all made me feel very lucky, very blessed, very rich in the only “assets” of life that really matter.

Mellon was right: “…a 5 minute respite….” will solve a lot of worries by clearing out a little space for the things that really matter.

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June 6th, 2008 | 9:02 am

What kind of men — many who were just boys — rushed the sandy beaches under artillery barrage and machine gun fire, certain that many among them would die? Who listened to and followed such orders? Why did so many challenge fate further just to save a wounded buddy?

The carnage and confusion of that early morning amphibious landing 64 years ago will forever remain the sina qua non act of bravery in my book. A general staked his career (and many of his men’s lives) on a decision to “go”, clutching in his pocket the scripted remarks he had prepared in the event of failure; his commanders bristled at not being with their boys in the line of fire in the greatest of our nation’s military traditions; and the men followed their orders until they didn’t work, then improvised and overcame nearly impossible odds. Rent and watch the first 30 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan”: you will have an idea of the bravery of which I speak. Where did we find such men?

Waiting in the wings were a few dozen men, mostly middle aged, who could never have imagined being soldiers under fire, for they were scholars, educators, artists. Yet they were there, awaiting their chance to land on the continent to do their job. They had everything to lose with careers established, families half-raised at home, life put on hold: yet they volunteered. It was a different type bravery than the men that landed on the Normandy beaches, but no less honorable. Where did we find such men?

A woman who serves her nation’s Congress does so out of duty, not financial gain. She takes a risk and speaks out for others too old and overlooked by history, men too humble to speak about their achievements of long ago. Two other women work 15 hour days, toiling in obscurity, constantly deferring credit for their work on another. Still, they work harder. Better paying jobs abound, but their remuneration comes in the form of eternal satisfaction and pride. They, too, are humble and seek not attention for themselves. Where do we find such women?

Our Nation is blessed in ways so abundant it makes for an embarrassment of riches. Yet too few pause to remember, to say “thanks”, to wonder how they can do their part to perpetuate this remarkable legacy. Too few know that there are 9,387 American men and women whose spirits watch over those landing beaches in France. An appalling number of Americans don’t even know what “D-Day” is. Where do we find such citizens?

This is a day for praise, to give thanks, to let all veterans know they are a constant “thank you” in our collective memory. Help us change the “forgetting”. Help us restore “remembering”. Help others be the citizen of the past, the one who sacrificed, the one who toiled in the trenches, the one who said “thanks” over and again. Help us lead by example to restore the collective citizenship which was and remains the cornerstone of our democracy. And thank every veteran you can because they gave years of their lives to provide us with the chance to live ours quite differently.

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June 5th, 2008 | 9:00 am

(Monuments Men (from left to right): Bernard Taper, James Reeds, Harry Ettlinger, and Horace Apgar)

One year ago I had a sleepless night at the business center of a really crummy hotel in Washington, D.C. Through the wee hours of the morning I drafted and redrafted the speech I would deliver later that day — the 63rd Anniversary of the D-Day landings – -at the Senate Ceremony to recognize and honor the Monuments Men of all 13 nations.

Events of June 6th, 2007 unfolded in the most dignified manner befitting the contribution of these men and women during World War ll. That this would be the last trip taken by my father before his death earlier this year was something I sensed might happen. So his presence, in particular the visit on June 5th with the Monuments Men and their spouses to the World War ll Memorial, made this the experience of my life.

How did we pull it off? Angels, pure and simple. Congresswoman Kay Granger and her staff invested countless hours helping us. We will always hold her special for she was the first person to ask, “how can I help?”. Others followed, Senators, members of Congress, staffers, organizers, and others whose help made our plans a reality. But behind the scenes, two people stand alone without whom we would not have succeeded.

(Karen Evans)

Christy Fox and Karen Evans love these men. Every waking hour has been spent helping me do my job, helping me garner the recognition they deserve. I, alone, have received the media attention, but their toil in the trenches has enabled us to experience the success attendant to this project. Karen spent a week in Washington preparing to receive the Monuments Men and their families while looking over my parents and all the details of the lunches and private dinners we hosted. Not a detail was overlooked. Such has been her dedication to these men and one woman these past 4 years, day in and day out. She regularly speaks with them, offers words of encouragement when illness strikes, finds little ways to show them the respect and love she feels for who they are and what they did. No amount of recognition would be too great for her endless dedication to them.

(Christy Fox)

Christy Fox once commented about my respect for elderly people. I can’t recall a more rewarding compliment. But it is Christy who sets the example. The depth of her respect and love for these men is immeasurable. She helped me carry 100 copies of my book, 6 at a time, each of which weigh 4.6 pounds, into the Senate buildings which took us three full days. We personally delivered each one to a Senator and explained who the Monument Men were and why they were important as part of our effort to gain support for the Senate Resolution. Her credibility with the media allowed her to obtain coverage few organizations of any size could ever obtain. Her pitch was genuine, well prepared, and timely in every instance. She hates the limelight as does Karen, yet without her the events of a year ago wouldn’t have happened.

It is wise to remember our achievements and the hard work that went into making aspirations realities. But it is essential that we also recognize two people whose dedication and sacrifice produced the results that followed. In honoring these heroes they did themselves honor. On behalf of the Monuments Men, we salute you both!!!

(Congratulating the Monuments Men of all 13 nations at the Senate Ceremony on June 6, 2007)

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June 4th, 2008 | 9:29 am

(Anne d’Harnoncourt)

Anne d’Harnoncourt, the world famous and beloved director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, died quite unexpectedly Sunday evening at her home in Philadelphia. She was just 64 years of age. Art and culture were imbued in her soul.

Rene, her father, was not only a painter and scholar on Mexican and Native American art, but also served as the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City from 1949-1968. Anne earned her master’s degree from the Courtauld Institute, where she was a classmate of my dear friend, Ted Pillsbury. Ted went on to greatness as the director of the Yale Center for British Art and later the Kimbell, while Anne worked briefly at the Tate Gallery before beginning her storied career in Philadelphia in 1967 as an assistant. After a brief stint as the assistant curator of 20th century art at the Art Institute in Chicago, Anne returned to Philadelphia where in 1982 she became the museum’s director and eventual CEO.

During her tenure she did it all, designing innovative installations, developing blockbuster exhibitions that staked a permanent claim for the city of Philadelphia among the elite of art museums in our Nation, and energizing a donor base who in turn oversaw astonishing growth of this remarkable institution. She walked with kings and paupers with equal comfort and understood the museum’s responsibility to appeal to all citizens of the city–those that loved art as well as those yet to discover it. All the while, she preserved the time honored tradition of — and continually redefined respect for — the object. “What we want is for new things to be great of their kind, and for each new work to have conversations with the rest of the collection.”

I was in Philadelphia Monday and Tuesday at the invitation of National Endowment for the Humanities’ Chairman Dr. Bruce Cole and the ongoing roll-out of the PICTURING AMERICA program. As often happens the greatest supporters of the arts are also those first in line to assist Dr. Cole and the NEH’s innovative programs. Thus it was no surprise to meet a remarkable group of volunteers and civic leaders at the truly one-of-a-kind home of Martha McGeary Snider, where I was asked to briefly speak about the Monuments Men. It was, however, a bittersweet occasion.

Everyone had tears in their eyes over the loss of Anne d’Harnoncourt. Everyone. The measure of loss was palpable and hung over yesterday’s otherwise great PICTURING AMERICA ceremony. Several people I met could not speak as the wound was so great. Indeed, Anne’s loss is truly immeasurable. Few people are truly irreplaceable: she is an exception. Her passing highlights the crisis in our museum leadership ranks, a subject I will be addressing in a lengthy blog next week.

The great city of Philadelphia, which Anne loved so much, will recover, and in time her legacy advanced by the same group of supporters she cultivated and who cultivated her over many years. But those challenges ahead belong to tomorrows. Today we mourn the loss of this great friend and champion of the arts.

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