$12 Million Gift From Leading Art Collectors Will Help Create Dedicated Space for Art by Women

$12 Million Gift From Leading Art Collectors Will Help Create Dedicated Space for Art by Women
"Portrait of the Collectors, Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt and Steven Alan Bennett"

Two of the country’s leading collectors of figurative realist paintings have donated $12 million in artworks and cash to help create a new wing at the Muskegon Museum of Art (MMA), where they are permanently dedicating space for artwork by women. Fewer than five museums in the world dedicate space solely to the work of women artists.

More than 150 paintings by women artists were given to the Michigan museum by art collectors and champions of gender equality, Steven Alan Bennett and Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt, of San Antonio. Their donation also includes a $1.5 million cash gift, which will help create a new wing to more than double the size of the museum.

Bennett and Schmidt have collected figurative realist paintings by women artists since 2009, creating The Bennett Collection, and in 2018 established The Bennett Prize—a $50,000 biennial award designed to propel the careers of women painters who have not yet realized full professional recognition. It is the largest art award offered solely to women painters. The Prize is currently in its third cycle, and the call for entries for the third cycle is open through Oct. 7, 2022. 

Over the past decade, only 11 percent of art acquired by the country’s top museums for their permanent collections was by women, according to a survey completed by the art market website ArtNet in 2019. Of the 260,470 works acquired by 26 of the top museums in the United States, less than 15% were by female artists.

Paintings donated from The Bennett Collection include works by more than 115 artists, including Artemisia Gentileschi, Mary Cassatt, Agnes Martin, Elaine de Kooning, Harmonia Rosales, Julie Bell, Andrea Kowch, Katie O’Hagan and many other contemporary and historical women figurative realist painters.

“This is a transformative and once-in-a-lifetime gift,” said MMA Executive Director Kirk Hallman. “In the context of an expansion project, it is all the more redefining. Steven and Elaine’s vision is one shared by the MMA. The Bennett-Schmidt gift is a call to action institutionally, encouraging both the Muskegon Museum of Art and other museums to continually expand opportunities for women artists.”

“The artwork being donated to the Muskegon Museum of Art catapults them into the forefront of progressive museums that recognize the primacy and power of the work of women painters,” said Bennett. “What has been an exceptionally good collection will now be augmented with many powerful works by women that span the generations.”