MEYERWITZ SHOW STARTS NEXT WEEK
Walter Manninen was in his twenties and attending grad-school when he decided to become an art collector, a lofty goal for the son of a Cape Ann plumber who was, at the time, without resources. “I didn’t have a dollar to my name, I didn’t have money for food! But I wanted that painting.”
The painting in question is called “Lillies of the Field,” and it was created by Theresa Bernstein, an artist who lived in Manhattan and summered in Gloucester. “That painting reached out to me and grabbed me like nothing I’d ever seen,” said Manninen, his eyes glowing with excitement even now, thirty-plus years later.
Lillies of the Field is one of about 400 paintings that Manninen recently put into trust and donated to Endicott College in Beverly, about a quarter of which were done by either Bernstein or her husband, a painter of similar repute, William Meyerwitz. Manninen has also pledged his Cape Ann home to the school and is made giddy by the sight of his name in big letters on the Walter J. Manninen Center for the Arts, a beautiful new facility on the campus at Endicott College. “I still have to pinch myself every time I walk by.”
But back in the early 80s, Manninen reached Theresa Bernstein by telephone in New York and negotiated the purchase of her painting. “She was a tough negotiator,” he said, “and a very savvy businessperson. But I made the deal with her.”
The student with no money had a problem, though – how to complete the purchase of the painting that had transfixed him. “I called my mother and I told her about the wonderful painting I’d bought by Theresa Bernstein. I said I’d paid only $2,000 for it, but it needed restoration and framing and I had a small problem – I had no money to pay for any of it.”
His mother paused for what seemed a long time, recalled Manninen, and then told him, “’Well, okay, I’ll lend you the money, but don’t tell your father about it,’” he recalled, laughing.
In addition to agreeing to purchase the painting, Walter Manninen acquired something else – a friend. He and Bernstein, in her early 90s, struck up a friendship. Bernstein, who was lonely following the death of her husband a few years earlier, would stay in touch by mail. In addition, he would visit her both at her summer home in Rockport and at the Upper West Side home she had shared with Meyerwitz.
“She was always ready for fun,” said Manninen of his friend, his senior by about 65 years. Manninen enjoyed that Bernstein would be spontaneous – he’d call and say he’d be swinging by in a few minutes, and she’d hop into his two-seat convertible sports car ready to take on the town, regardless of the time of day. “What would you like to do?” Manninen quotes himself as asking her. “She’d say, ‘let’s go pick up a quart of vanilla ice cream and two spoons!’” recalls Manninen.
Manninen also appreciated, even admired, the fact that Bernstein never forgot the need to conduct business. “She was up for anything – I could come over with a bunch of friends, even on short notice, and she was always welcoming.” But there was one caveat – she would be happy, “as long someone bought a painting.”
In 2010, when he had semi-retired from his career in magazine publishing and sold his home in Newton and moved full-time to his small summer home in Rockport, Manninen became serious about estate planning. As a part of that process, he started searching for a North Shore school to house his art collection. But it took some effort to find the right fit.
“Other schools didn’t quite see the opportunity,” explained Manninen with some wonder. “But when I met President Wylie at Endicott, his excitement was immediate, and it seemed like he said yes in a matter of minutes.”
Richard Wylie, the president of Endicott for nearly 30 years, confirms that recollection. “I see myself as the person who opens doors, and when Walter talked about this, it was just obvious that Endicott was the place to have this art. Within 24 hours the answer was ‘yes.’”
Last year, the gift yielded its first exhibition, a presentation of Theresa Bernstein’s work. The second exhibit starts next week, October 3, with a show of her husband William Meyerwitz’s work. That show has Manninen running back and forth as he pulls paintings off the walls of his gallery-like home to run them over to school, then bring others home to fill the empty spaces.
The hefty percentage of the work of Meyerwitz and Bernstein, who Manninen says are among the top 100 American painters of the twentieth century, has found a devoted home at Endicott College.
As for Manninen, he says he’s still collecting art. “Oh, yes. I can’t stop.”
The art of William Meyerwitz (from the Walter Manninen Collection) will be on display at Endicott College’s Heftler Visiting Artist (located in the Manninen Center for the Arts) Gallery starting Monday, October 3 and continuing through Friday, January 6.