NEW YORK CITY – Larry Aldrich, founder and chairman emeritus of the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Conn., passed away in the early morning of October 26 in New York City. Aldrich was 95 and he is survived by his wife, Wynn Payne Aldrich; his daughters Georganne Heller, Susan Huberth and Kate Strassman; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
He remained actively involved with the museum and was looking forward to its expansion and renovation. He saw every exhibition mounted at the museum, including the current exhibitions “Best of the Season” and “Jordan Tinker.” The board and staff of the museum are committed to carrying forward his vision of championing the work of emerging artists.
A successful designer and art collector with an endless passion for the new and interesting, Aldrich supported the careers of emerging artists throughout his lifetime. The Aldrich Museum, which he founded in 1964, celebrates his vision by continuing to support new and emerging artists and embracing his willingness to take risks and champion the different and unfamiliar art of our time.
Larry Aldrich was born in Manhattan in 1906 as Larry Orlevich, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. At the age of 18, expecting to attend Columbia University to pursue a career in law, he took a summer job as a salesman for a local dress manufacturer. Within two years, he had organized his own fashion firm and in 1927, the first Larry Aldrich dress collection was met with much success. In 1937, Aldrich acquired his first ten paintings.
He married Wynn Payne in 1940. She encouraged his collecting and he eventually began making bolder purchases. The acquisition of a Renoir and Utrillo led to the formation of a serious collection of Impressionist, post-Impres-sionist and Expressionist works, including Monet, Gaugin, Kirchner, Vuillard and Manet.
Contemporary art became Aldrich’s focus in the 1950s, especially as he became increasingly involved in the art world and the rapidly expanding New York art scene, most notably making the acquaintance of Alfred H. Barr, Jr, director of the Museum of Modern Art.
Through his friendship with Barr, Aldrich decided to fund a purchase program for MOMA to support the work of emerging artists by buying their work for the permanent gallery. Aldrich stipulated that each work had to cost less than $1,000 in order to support little-known artists. The Aldrich Purchase Fund added 112 works to MOMA’s collection, including its first acquisition by Frank Stella, Robert Indiana, Tom Wesselman, Agnes Martin, Brice Marden and Lucas Samaras. Aldrich funded a similar program at The Whitney Museum of American Art, which ran from 1963-1970.
With his own collection of contemporary works rapidly growing, Aldrich decided to open his own museum in 1963. To fund the new museum, he sold his entire collection – which included works by Picasso, Miro, Chagall and Klee – through auction by Parke Bernet for $1.3 million. A historic building in Ridgefield, where the Aldriches maintained a summer home, was promptly purchased and renovations then began. The Larry Aldrich Museum opened to the public in 1964. It is considered the first museum in the country to devote itself entirely to contemporary art.
In 1965 Aldrich became a Fellow of the Aspen Institute in Aspen, Colo. In 1966 he sold his company and retired from the fashion industry. The Larry Aldrich Museum became The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in 1967, and a formal board of trustees was established including Alfred Barr, Joseph Hirshorn, Phillip Johnson and Vera Lisi.
In 1973, Aldrich opened the Soho Center for Visual Artists, a nonprofit exhibition space on Prince Street in Manhattan, dedicated to the work of emerging artists without gallery representation. Adjacent to the gallery, he created an art library, open to the art community free of charge. The library eventually grew to more than 10,000 volumes. The Center was open until 1990, and the library was donated to The New Museum.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art grew, with a major expansion project that doubled the exhibition space in 1986. Aldrich retired as chairman of the board in 1991, at the age of 85. He established the Larry Aldrich Foundation Award in 1992 to provide support for emerging artists. After 30 years of service, the Aspen Institute presented Larry Aldrich with the Fellows Award in 1995.
Aldrich celebrated his ninetieth birthday on June 13, 1996, and was presented that summer with an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree by the University of Connecticut. At the suggestion of his good friend and fellow collector John Powers in 1996, Aldrich mounted a quote by JFK on a plaque in front of the museum. It reads:
“I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty…an America which will reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.” –John F. Kennedy, October 26, 1963.
On September 29, The Aldrich Museum board, with Aldrich, chairman emeritus in attendance, voted unanimously to proceed with the renovation and expansion of The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art.