She lived much of her life in New York City luxury, but Mary Griggs Burke never forgot her Minnesota roots.
Museums around the world courted her, hoping she would bequeath to them her legendary collection of Japanese art, but it was to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that she left the bulk of it: 700 pieces of rare Japanese and Korean art, spanning 5,000 years, along with a $12.5 million endowment.
The bequest from Burke, announced Monday, catapults the Minneapolis museum’s Japanese collection into the top tier of U.S. museums.
“It is a transformative gift,” said Matthew Welch, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator. “We have great strength in certain schools, but this really gives us depth. And in the area of ceramics and lacquer, it is a treasure trove of pieces not presently referenced in the collection at all.”
Burke, who died in 2012 at 96, assembled what was considered the finest private collection of Japanese art outside of that country. More than 170 items from Burke’s gift will be shown in a special exhibition opening in September.
Burke also bequeathed 320 pieces of Japanese and Korean art and an additional $12.5 million to the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she was a longtime trustee. “It is inconceivable that a collection comparable to hers could be assembled today,” said the Met’s director, Thomas Campbell.
Born in St. Paul in 1916, Burke grew up in an Italianate palazzo on Summit Avenue that she later donated to the Minnesota State Arts Board. The family fortune came from investments in lumber, railroads and utilities.
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1938, she earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Columbia University. She made her first trip to Japan in 1954 at the suggestion of architect Walter Gropius, who was designing a modernist house for her on Long Island. Impressed by the country’s unspoiled landscape and the attention to beauty in everyday life, she began studying Japanese art at Columbia and New York University.
She married Jackson Burke, a printer and type designer, in 1955, and the following year acquired her first important piece of Japanese art: a folding screen once owned by Frank Lloyd Wright. The screen illustrated scenes from the classic 11th-century novel “Tales of Genji,” written by a noblewoman to entertain the court. The book remained a touchstone in Burke’s collecting.
“She set out to acquire things that interested her, especially art that referenced classic Japanese literature and courtly romances,” said Welch, a friend for more than 25 years and frequent guest at her homes in Manhattan, Cable, Wis., and Hobe Sound, Fla. “She was her own person who wasn’t about to be talked into buying anything. As a result there is a certain feminine quality to the collection that really reflects her taste.”
An encyclopedia collection
Burke’s multimillion-dollar bequest to the Minneapolis museum complements a $25 million gift of Japanese art that California cattle breeder Bill Clark gave the MIA in 2013.
The museum’s Japanese collection now ranks with those of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Met in New York and the National Museums of Asian Art (Sackler and Freer) at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
While most of the Clark collection dates from 1600 to 1868 — Japan’s so-called Edo period — Burke’s bequest is older and more encyclopedic.
Starting in prehistoric Japan, her art continues through the Muromachi period, which ended in 1573. Highlights include 1,000-year-old Buddhist and Shinto sculptures, prehistoric to contemporary ceramics; 14th century ink paintings; a rare 16th-century water jar, and folding screens depicting hollyhocks and plum trees, Chinese children playing “crack the whip” and climbing over an elephant.
She also gave the Minneapolis museum about 100 pieces of Korean art, including ceramics, metalwork and lacquerware.
With Burke’s collection, the MIA’s Japanese collection will total 7,000 pieces filling 15 galleries named in her honor. The museum’s Japanese expert, Andreas Marks, also will be titled the Mary Griggs Burke Curator of Japanese and Korean Art. The $12.5 million endowment will be used for additional purchases, programs and fellowships.
In the Japanese manner, Burke preferred minimalist simplicity in her decor. She stored most of her art in a second apartment and had her private curators arrange special displays for the pleasure of scholars and distinguished guests, including members of Japan’s imperial family.
Portions of her collection were shown at the Tokyo National Museum in 1985, an honor that has never been extended to another foreign collection of Japanese art.
“She really loved Japanese art and loved to talk about it, not in that hard-driven collector way, but in a very warm and human way,” Welch said. “She was a kindred spirit, and I dearly miss her.”