Duane Morris eschewed the typical wood-paneled walls that adorn many law offices in favor of blank, white canvases used to display the art collection of Chairman Emeritus Sheldon Bonovitz and his wife, Jill.
But a tour of the firm’s Philadelphia headquarters today may leave an art lover wanting. In a number of places where art once hung, there are empty hooks with signs that read "On loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art."
The Bonovitzes donated 200 pieces of their "outsider art" collection to the museum. The donation represents about two-thirds of the couple’s collection of art done by self-taught artists from across America — also known as "outside" artists who were far from the gallery and museum scene. Curators from the museum perused the couple’s art-filled home as well as the 30,000 square feet of conference floor space at Duane Morris where the Bonovitzes’ art hung in an effort to select the 200 pieces best suited for a new exhibit, "Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art From the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection."
The exhibition will run in the museum’s main building from March 3 through June 9.
The best part about making the irrevocable donation to the museum while the couple is still living, Sheldon Bonovitz said, is that the art "comes back to us and we get to live with it" when the exhibition is over. Bonovitz said this is the first time he has seen all of the art in one place.
Bonovitz noted at the museum Friday morning that the exhibition is an example of other ways lawyers spend their time aside from in the courtroom or boardroom. Not only did he lead Duane Morris as chairman for a decade and continue a corporate practice, but Bonovitz has also dedicated much of his life to the arts. He is a trustee of the museum, has lent some of his other collections for prior exhibits and has spent the last 30-plus years with his wife buying art from self-taught artists when a piece called to them.
The Harvard Law-educated Bonovitz said many of the artists whose work comprises the couple’s collection are poor and uneducated. But he said their creativity shows "there is no fence around genius."
The Bonovitzes will be married for 46 years this April and the pair have enjoyed the art scene together since they first met. Jill Bonovitz’s mother had a gallery that included self-taught artists and Jill Bonovitz herself is an artist. She founded The Clay Studio, an institution dedicated to ceramic arts.
It was in 1982 at a black folk art exhibition in Washington, D.C., that the couple realized they had a love for American self-taught artists and about seven or eight years later people were saying the pair had a collection of such work. That collection has continued to grow over the years.
Sheldon Bonovitz said the couple never looked to acquire certain artists or certain forms of outsider art but rather just purchased whatever inspired them. He said outsider art is not done with the intention to sell, but rather is something the artist simply felt compelled to create.
The works in the "Great and Mighty Things" exhibit range from animals carved from wood to cardboard painted in vibrant colors. Bonovitz said the works fall into the contemporary art category. He said it is rare for a major museum in a major metropolitan city to house this type of art. Much of the work is done by black and Hispanic artists. Displaying the work fits in with the museum’s goal of diversifying its audience, Bonovitz said.
The exhibit includes drawings, paintings, sculptures and other art forms created by 27 artists.