Published: Friday, June 03, 2011, 6:00 PM Updated: Friday, June 03, 2011, 10:23 PM
The museum announced Friday that it has acquired 35 of the best works from the collection amassed by Odette Delenne of Brussels and her late husband, Rene Delenne, from the late 1950s to the late 1970s.
The museum declined to put a monetary value on the deal, a purchase-gift arrangement, but said that Odette Delenne discounted the price in exchange for a permanent credit line on the objects as belonging to the Rene and Odette Delenne Collection.
At 5:14 p.m., the website FT.com reported that the museum paid "a substantial seven-figure sum," but cited no source.
The works include three rare male “power figures;” a 19th-century bronze crucifix used in both Christian and traditional religious rites; and a rare female bowl-bearing figure. Many of the objects have never been published or exhibited and are therefore unknown to scholars and the public.
The acquisition represents a quantum leap for the quality of CMA’s African collection and a major victory for curator Constantine “Costa” Petridis, hired in 2002 as the museum’s first full-time curator of African art.
The acquisition grew out of a friendship developed in the early 1990s when Petridis, then an intern at the Ethnographic Museum of Antwerp in Belgium, approached the Delennes about borrowing some of their Congolese masks for an exhibition.
He kept in touch with the collectors after moving to Cleveland and began discussing the ultimate disposition of the collection with Odette Delenne following her husband’s death in 1998.
Petridis said that Delenne was not interested in donating her collection to Europe’s ethnographic museums, where African art is normally shown, because those museums exhibit cultural artifacts primarily from an anthropological rather than artistic point of view.
“Her realization was that at the Met [the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York] the collection would be lost,” Petridis said.
Though she never visited Cleveland, Petridis said Delenne “understood her collection could make a difference” at CMA because it is an encyclopedic museum that celebrates art from great cultures around the world on an equal footing.
Petridis said that if the museum had not been able to reach an understanding with Delenne, “I would have needed many decades to come remotely close to building a collection like this, even if it were possible in the market.”
Petridis has been working to strengthen the museum’s collection of African art, which numbers approximately 300 objects, and which he described as “until recently a weaker link.”
C. Griffith Mann, the museum’s chief curator, called the Delenne purchase-gift “transformative. . . . There were lots of dealers circling around and hoping to get their hands on this material” because the objects are so rare.
Virtually all of the collection comprises objects that were documented as having been outside Africa before 1970, the date of an international UNESCO convention aimed at halting the looting or trafficking of artworks from source countries around the world, Mann said.
The Delenne collection will make its debut in Cleveland in a special exhibition in the spring of 2013 in the museum’s Lifelong Learning Center, a gallery that will occupy the old exhibition space in the 1971 Education Wing. Many works in the collection will be shown for the first time in that exhibition.
The learning center, which will open in the fall of 2012, will act as a gateway to the museum and to its massive new skylighted atrium, new restaurant and gift shop.
Renovated galleries on the west side of the lower level of the 1916 building will be finished by the end of 2012. A year later, completed galleries in the new West Wing will cap the museum’s eight-year, $350 million renovation and expansion.
Petridis said one goal for the Delenne exhibition will be to publish a catalog documenting the lives of the collectors and their passion for art. The couple was not wealthy, he said. Rene Delenne was a prominent graphic designer in Belgium, and Odette worked as a homemaker, and later, as an art dealer.
The Delennes began collecting African art after attending an exhibition at Expo 58 in Brussels, a world’s fair. By the late 1970s, prices for African art had risen to a point that made it impossible for the Delennes to continue adding to their holdings, Petridis said.
In a sense, the collection is not only a portrait of the artistic sensibilities and taste of the Delennes, but also of the conditions of the African art market during a fleeting moment of opportunity for collectors, Petridis said.
Because African sculptures, ritual and utilitarian objects are made of wood and other natural materials, which decay, it is difficult to find works that date from earlier than the 19th century. Also, the creators of most works are unknown.
The Delennes focused on works by the Kongo and Ngbandi peoples, and sought objects that were well preserved, with all accoutrements and accessories intact, Petridis said.
They also sought objects rich with references to the spiritual dimensions of African art, a factor indicated by their “preference for works with lush, shiny patinas resulting from intense usage over a long period of time,” he said.
The collection “is not just about aesthetics and visual form,” Petridis said. “They [the Delennes] were very sensitive to the ritual aspects and philosophy behind the art. Madame was very erudite. She was always in awe at the depth, the intellectual capacities
of the people she encountered. She is very humble and very much about being with other human beings and sharing, which is very rare in the field of art collectors today.”