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Pioneering folk art collectors Ellin and Baron Gordon have donated an unparalleled collection of 20th- and 21st-century, self-taught American folk art to Old Dominion.

The largest art donation ever received by the university, the collection comprises 300 pieces, including paintings, sculptures, jugs, canes and carvings. The impressive assemblage will be the centerpiece of the new Old Dominion University Gallery, which is currently under construction in the University Village. The gallery and the Baron and Ellin Gordon Collection of Contemporary Self-Taught Art are expected to be open to the public in spring 2007.

"Thanks to the generosity and vision of Ellin and Baron Gordon, Old Dominion University students and staff and the Hampton Roads community will have the opportunity to learn from and enjoy this unique and diverse genre of art," said President Roseann Runte.

When the Gordons began collecting American folk art as a young couple in the 1960s, it was for the love of the art, the wonderful relationships they built with the artists and the stories each piece told. It's a passion that has enriched their lives for nearly five decades.

"We buy what we like," explained Baron Gordon, a member of the New York Stock Exchange. "I don't buy art for investment. I don't buy it to turn it over."

While the pair always shared a love of art, their interest in collecting American folk art began simply enough on a drive through Maine. They spotted a variety of 19th-century decorated stoneware on a lawn, and within an hour they had purchased their first pieces.

The Gordons have been collecting 20th- and 21st-century self-taught American art since the mid-1980s.

"We feel it is a natural continuation of the 19th-century folk art tradition and it has the added attraction of the opportunity to meet many of the artists," Ellin said. "The art has great emotional appeal for us and it is strong and unpretentious."

One piece led to another and soon the Gordons were making special trips around the country to see the artists firsthand in their environments. These visits often resulted in friendships, which in turn enhanced their collection.

Artist Tim Lewis is one such example. Lewis found an unusually long piece of stone that made him think immediately of the Gordons. He called Baron and said he wanted to create something special for them. What he sculpted, at their request, was a unique rendering of Abraham Lincoln, complete with topcoat and tall hat, which now greets visitors in the foyer of their Williamsburg home.

"Getting to know a lot of people - artists, collectors, dealers and museum professionals - has been a wonderful experience for us," Ellin said.

The pieces they collect are all by self-taught artists who come from diverse backgrounds. Many are elderly. Several have been in and out of prison. Some are mentally disabled. One was a coal miner. Another is a street preacher.

"Self-taught artists seldom think of themselves as 'artists' and even after success, many are still surprised that their work has received recognition
as 'art,'" Ellin said.

Parts of the Gordons' collection, which contains about 1,000 pieces by more than 150 artists displayed dynamically on virtually every surface in their home, have been loaned over the years to such prestigious institutions as the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore and High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The Gordons have also donated pieces to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

While neither is a graduate of Old Dominion, Baron, who grew up in Norfolk, and Ellin agreed that the university would be a great home for this collection. When President Runte approached them and offered the new University Gallery as a backdrop and the opportunity for the collection to be used as part of the art department's curriculum, they were delighted.

Since then, Ellin has worked with University Gallery director Katherine Huntoon to choose which pieces will go in the new space on campus. The task has been difficult because, as Ellin notes, "There is a story about all of them."

And that may be the most valuable aspect of the Gordons' gift - this scholarly collection of folk art is in many respects the story of America.

This article was posted on: February 14, 2006

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