George and Barbara Gordon did not set out to create a legacy but ended up preserving one. As ardent collectors of works by the artist Mathias J. Alten for more than 40 years, the Grand Rapids, Michigan, couple have been instrumental in amassing an unrivaled collection and in forging a commitment to make it accessible to everyone.
George H. Gordon, a successful entrepreneur in the oil and gas industry, recalls that his appreciation of fine art developed in the 1950s during visits to museums. It was refined through personal relationships he developed with artists, gallery owners, and other collectors. Beginning in the 1970s, he periodically bought paintings by Michigan artists. His later focus on works by Alten was nurtured by his pride in the local artist and an appreciation of Alten’s immense skill and ability to capture scenes from a bygone era. The more Gordon learned about the artist’s breadth of work and international reputation as an American Impressionist, the more passionate he became about enhancing his collection to reflect the full spectrum of Alten’s career. With the help of gallery owners, he sought out and purchased paintings Alten created of Spanish missions in Southern California, sponge-fishers in Tarpon Springs, Florida, rustic scenes of Old Lyme, Connecticut, and Taos, New Mexico, along with others painted by Alten during periodic trips to Europe. Hunting down Alten’s prodigious output introduced Gordon to the excitement of art collecting, always on the search for an elusive painting that fills in a missing part of an artistic puzzle. He equates the thrill of searching for and uncovering a heretofore unknown treasure with the excitement of picking the winning horse at a top race like the Kentucky Derby.
What started as a private collection in the Gordons’ home soon outgrew the wall space and expanded into Gordon’s Grand Rapids business office in the Trust Building. Later, adjacent office space was obtained and transformed into his own gallery where he passionately curated a private gallery with dozens of Alten’s works hung salon-style. The Grand Rapids Art Museum took notice and asked to include nearly a dozen paintings from the Gordons’ collection in its 1998 retrospective exhibition, Mathias J. Alten: Journey of an American Painter.
The Gordons’ desire to continue to share their passion for Alten resulted in an agreement that same year with Grand Valley State University and then-President Arend D. Lubbers, whose support of art in public places was widely known. The Gordons, ardent stewards of Alten’s works and legacy, donated 36 of the artist’s paintings from their private collection to the university. In recognition of their generosity, President Lubbers promised to provide a prestigious exhibition space within the university’s Richard M. DeVos Center, then under construction on the expanding Robert C. Pew Grand Rapids Campus.
Since opening in 2000, the George and Barbara Gordon Gallery has been devoted exclusively to exhibiting Alten’s work, and the Gordons have continued to annually build on their initial donation. Those commitments inspired gifts from other collectors, institutions, and Alten descendants. Three of Alten’s granddaughters, Gloria Alten Gregory, Dianne Demmon Boozer, and Anita M. Gilleo, donated, loaned, and promised gifts of paintings from their own collections. They also gave treasured family letters, photographs, and business records that document the artist’s personal life and the advancement of his professional career. These valuable assets are housed within the Special Collections and University Archives in Seidman House on the university’s Allendale Campus. They can be viewed by students, faculty, staff, community members, and researchers, through the archives and online.
33 Through the establishment of The Friends of Mathias Alten, the Gordons and the university continue to preserve the artist’s work and to provide related cultural and educational opportunities. Community collaborations have included guest lecturers, as well as performances of music, dance, and poetry inspired by works in the Alten collection.
As awareness of the artist and the gallery continued to grow, so did the contributions. Additional Alten paintings gifted by the Gordons and others quickly outgrew the gallery’s exhibition space. Another generous gift from the Gordons provided funding for a second expansion that doubled the gallery space in 2008, and provided space for 10 additional paintings not previously able to be displayed. Their continuous support also made possible another major expansion in 2012, which added a second floor to the gallery and more than 30 additional Alten paintings for exhibition. During construction, a large selection of paintings comprised the first traveling exhibition drawn from the collection, which was made accessible to the public in a Naples, Florida, art center for two months.
Gordon Gallery visitors from West Michigan and well beyond have been impressed and inspired by what has become the largest public collection of artwork by Alten. George often uses the word “we” to acknowledge the contributions of others when he speaks about the collection. Gratitude mingles with pride as he identifies Alten family members in Picnic at Macatawa, admires Alten’s shift to a brighter palette in Oxen, Driver and Boat at Cabañal, or the rugged detail captured in paintings of Dutch loggers and woodcutters.
A close inspection of any work of art reveals much more than first meets the eye. Similarly, the Gordons’ initial contribution generated much more than they ever anticipated. Their vast efforts have provided a much broader awareness and appreciation of this important artist. In the process, they have also created a legacy of their own.