A few years ago, when I was working at the DIA as curator of European paintings, I received a phone call inviting me to meet a man named Mr. Ralph Wilson at his house. I immediately did some research and found out that Mr. Wilson was the owner of the Buffalo Bills football team. This did not mean much to me, having grown up in Spain with football (or soccer) as my sport, where we play with our feet and the closest thing we had to American football was rugby! Anyway, I soon realized that the reason I was invited to visit Mr. Wilson’s home in Grosse Pointe Shores was to see his collection of Impressionist art, one of the few we had in Michigan. I did more research and discovered that he owned works by Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Edouard Manet. At the DIA we do have paintings by these three artists, but unfortunately, we only own one example of each. For this particular reason, I prepared my visit to meet Mr. Wilson with the idea in mind that I would ask him to loan one of his Monets to the DIA for a short period of time. If I were successful, we would enjoy both Mr. Wilson’s patronage and a new painting to share with the community and our schools.
From that visit, I remember the warmth with which I was welcomed, the tour of the works in his home and a very nice conversation in his living room. Mr. Wilson was generous with his time and told me the story of how he became the owner of the Buffalo Bills, his passion for Detroit and Buffalo, and many other aspects of his life. As he was warming up, I asked him about collecting and his interest in Impressionist art. In a very elegant and humble fashion he told me that he had no degree in art history and didn’t know anything about art. He said that he had acquired the paintings because they brought joy to his life and that he loved their colors, their brushwork and the views rendered on their canvases — especially the Monets! He was speaking from his heart, as someone who has the gift to understand the unspoken language of artists, collects based on his life experiences and enjoys sharing them. As he was speaking (and I wish I could remember exactly his eloquent, down-to-earth, and heartfelt words), I had the feeling that I would not have the courage to ask him for a Monet loan to the DIA. Mr. Wilson was of an advanced age and taking away one of his truly beloved works would be like taking away a member of his family. He deserved to live with them, so I decided that perhaps we could find another opportunity in the future.
I left the house thinking I did the right thing and feeling grateful I had met a special human being. While I corresponded with him in the following months, I did not get another chance to see Mr. Wilson before he passed away in 2014. However, the experience of meeting him and his comments about art have stayed with me all these years. While his Monets never were on view at the DIA, the opportunity to celebrate Mr. Wilson has finally arrived. Last October, he would have turned 100 years old! To celebrate his birthday, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and the DIA have co-organized an extraordinary exhibition featuring our combined collections of Impressionist art. Humble and Human: Impressionist Era Treasures from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Detroit Institute of Arts, an Exhibition in Honor of Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. will open on June 26, bringing to Detroit many artworks on view at the DIA for the first time, and will be free for residents for Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties. We are very grateful to the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation for its support of this exhibition as well as to Mary Wilson and Eugene Driker who proposed the idea for this project. It is a privilege to celebrate a life truly devoted to a love of community, sports, and art.