Memoirs of Leon Arkus reveal remarkable ambition

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He was a well-traveled World War II veteran and the grandson of a rabbi; she was an art-loving publicity-shy member of Pittsburgh's famous banking family. Leon Anthony Arkus and Sarah Mellon Scaife were an unlikely duo, but during the 1960s, they built an enviable collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings for the Carnegie Museum of Art.

The beginning of that partnership unfolds in a new book about Arkus, who died of liver cancer in 1999. "An Accidental Life: The Memoirs of Leon A. Arkus" is filled with revealing anecdotes about the museum's early days and the valiant struggle to build a collection. Completed by Jane Arkus, the museum director's wife of 27 years, it was published in September by 360 Digital Books of Michigan.

Early in the 1960s, Mr. Arkus was the art museum's associate director when he was sent to New York City to buy paintings. He returned with six canvases. While Mrs. Scaife liked a Renoir portrait of a girl in pink and a scene by Edouard Vuillard, he lobbied enthusiastically for a picture of a woman bathing by Edgar Degas.

"You really like that painting, don't you?" Scaife said. "In the future, I want you to always speak up and tell me what you like and what you don't like. You stick to your guns."

When Scaife decided to buy all three pictures, Arkus nearly collapsed; he had expected her to purchase just one.

"He loved it that she let him have free rein. He had a great capacity for learning. He had no formal training for any job that he ever took on," Mrs. Arkus said.

Art may have been in his genes; his maternal grandmother's family was among the founders of A La Vieille Russie, a New York gallery that still specializes in Russian art, including Faberge. His life experience trumped academic credentials. By the time Arkus arrived at The Carnegie in 1954, he had organized an El Greco exhibition in New York City to benefit the Greek War Relief Association in the '40s.

To attract national attention for that show, he telephoned the office of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. At the opening in New York, she held the El Greco catalog high while posing for photographs. Earlier, he had served as sales director for the Masterpieces of Art exhibition at the New York World's Fair of 1939, a role that allowed him to make many friends and useful contacts.

In Pittsburgh, the art museum had a small staff -- a director, an assistant director, a decorative arts curator, four secretaries and a six-member work crew -- Arkus tackled a wide array of tasks. As assistant director to Gordon Bailey Washburn, Arkus focused on drawings and prints but also handled public relations, budgeting, catalog publishing, scheduling and installing exhibits.

"He used to do the jobs of four or five people," said Syl Damianos, an architect and sculptor. "He was an all-around director. That, to me, was most impressive."

Jane Haskell, a Squirrel Hill artist who moved to Pittsburgh in 1949, remembered Arkus' close working relationship with Washburn.

"Gordon Washburn came from Buffalo from the Albright-Knox Gallery. ... They really began to put the museum on the map with contemporary painting" by acquiring the work of Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

Soon, art lovers were saying of Arkus: "The guy has an eye," Mrs. Haskell said.

After he became director of the art museum in 1969, Arkus created the Ailsa Mellon Bruce gallery with David Owsley, an enterprising decorative arts curator. Bruce, the only daughter of Andrew Mellon, died in 1969 and left her decorative arts collection to the museum.

As a curator, Arkus took risks by showcasing the expressionistic work of European artists known as the COBRA school because most of them lived in Copenhagen, Brussels or Amsterdam. Hallmarks of their work included brightly saturated colors, fantasy and Nordic myths.

Arkus sought out and encouraged local artists, giving many their first shows at the museum, including Mrs. Haskell and sculptor and ceramist Thaddeus Mosley. Artists Diane Samuels and Paul Glabicki are friends to this day because of their close ties to Arkus.

"He did not view local artists as being inferior to national artists, which was pretty unusual," Mr. Glabicki said. "Normally, curators and directors of museum don't come knocking on your door. It's usually the reverse."

Ms. Samuels treasured the occasions when Arkus called and asked, "Hey, kid, are you up for lunch today?" Like Mr. Glabicki, she regularly met him at Ali Baba's restaurant in Oakland, where stimulating conversation flowed over yogurt, warm lentils with fried onions and coffee.

"When he was critical," Ms. Samuels said, "he made me want to work harder."

In 1974, the Sarah Scaife Galleries opened, tripling the museum's exhibition space and adding a 200-seat theater and outdoor sculpture court. The new wing, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, was hailed by The New York Times as an "unflawed paradise." Richard Mellon Scaife supported the $12.5 million expansion to honor his mother, who died in 1965. Although other local philanthropists contributed, Mr. Scaife was the biggest donor, Mrs. Arkus recalled.

"Dick Scaife had a deep interest in the art himself. He was the one who was the most deeply supportive as far as the galleries were concerned."

Mr. Scaife joined museum board members in interviewing architects for the job of designing the galleries, including the legendary Louis Kahn, who had just undergone an operation. For the meeting, held at his Philadelphia apartment, the architect wore a cutaway coat over a suit of pajamas.

"Mr. Kahn, you built my headquarters for the Tribune-Review. Why is it that you always make your buildings out of concrete?" Mr. Scaife asked.

The blue-eyed Kahn replied, "Why, Mr. Scaife, if you give me the money, I'll make it out of amethyst."

"An Accidental Life: The Memoirs of Leon A. Arkus" sells for $14.95 at the museum's gift shop, Caliban Books and Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

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Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648.


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