Published: May 28, 2002
NEW HAVEN, CONN. – At the spring symposium of The Decorative Arts Trust, held on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the trust, Philadelphian Robert Lincoln McNeil, Jr, was honored with the Decorative Arts Trust’s Award of Excellence for a lifetime of outstanding contributions to the arts in America.
The award was presented at a luncheon attended by trust members and guests invited in his honor. Jonathan Fairbanks, president of the Decorative Arts Trust, praised McNeil for his unceasing interest in and support of the arts.
Holding in his hand the list of McNeil’s activities in the fields of arts and sciences, education and public service, Fairbanks read down the first page, then, catching his breath, cheerfully admitted that there were so many achievements that it would be impossible to mention them all. Accepting the award, McNeil addressed the group about his professional career in the pharmaceutical industry, and his ongoing interest in the arts.
He spoke with charming candor of his life as a collector, a scholar and a patron, talking of the people who had aided his early and maturing interest in American arts and antiques. “Getting to know the wonderful people in this broad community of American arts and studies has been the greatest pleasure,” McNeil said. It was clear that he takes greatest pride in the works by others that he has supported or enabled.
When he concluded, his audience rose to give him a standing ovation, recognizing his lifetime of loving dedication to the arts and their study. A bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln, the work of Fairbanks’ late father, the sculptor Avard Fairbanks, was presented to McNeil. It was a particularly fitting remembrance for the scholar and philanthropist, who bears the name of the great president.
McNeil received a degree in physiological chemistry and bacteriology from Yale and graduated with honors from Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science. He then held successive positions at McNeil Laboratories, Inc, starting with research chemist and culminating with chairman of the board. Always active in community affairs, McNeil was also a collector.
The Robert L. McNeil, Jr, Americana Collection of approximately 3,500 interrelated historical objects and artifacts was assembled to illustrate and interpret American art, material culture and pivotal events in the greater Philadelphia region during the late Colonial and Federal periods, 1750-1825, to reveal and understand American national heritage.
As a collector he became interested in research, resource materials, conservation and preservation and, through his Barra Foundation, began to support these efforts. The first grant was given in 1964 to Anthony Garvan at the University of Pennsylvania who was creating the Index of American Culture.
McNeil has made many important gifts through the Barra Foundation such as two chairs belonging to George Washington, which were given to the White House. The Barra Foundation endowed the professorship of American art history at Wellesley College, a chair which is now held by the distinguished architectural historian Dr James F. O’Gorman, the Grace Slack McNeil Professorship in American art.
The list of publications sponsored by the Barra Foundation is extensive. All the books are highly respected, tremendous contributions to the field and many have become icons, such as the Official White House China, 1789 to the Present, by Margaret Brown Klapthor, and Wallpaper in America from the Seventeenth Century to World War I by Catherine Lynn.
He also endowed the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, which supports scholarly inquiry into histories and cultures of North America and the Caribbean before 1850. To disseminate this new scholarship, MCEAS publishes an annual essay volume, Explorations in Early American Culture, and organizes conferences. For information, www.mceas.org.
McNeil’s participation in the world of the arts is at every level. He is a major collector of Americana and is also a true connoisseur. He has served as an active member of governing boards of art and educational institutions; his gifts have been momentous; enriching their recipients in every way. (The trust lectures that morning at Yale were held in the Robert L. McNeil, Jr, Lecture Hall.)
Many institutions and individuals around the country have benefited greatly from the support of Robert L. McNeil, Jr, and the fields of American decorative arts and American studies have particularly gained from the interest of McNeil.
The Decorative Arts Trust is a nonprofit, national organization formed to study and promote interest in American decorative arts.
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