How Joseph and Nancy Keithley Built an Art Collection that Became a Historic Gift to CMA
As a young married couple, Joseph and Nancy Keithley knew they shared a deep appreciation for art. Fittingly, they had met at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in 1974, when a mutual friend invited them to a small party the matchmaker hoped would spark a romantic union between two other friends.
“After about 45 minutes, the two people who were meant to meet left separately,” Nancy remembers with a laugh. “They didn’t find any reason to stick around with one another, but Joe and I were attracted to each another.”
A year later, Nancy and Joseph married. Joseph had graduated from Cornell with a degree in industrial engineering. While working in his first job doing operations research as a manufacturing engineer for Eaton Corp’s truck components group, Joseph took a different path than his fellow employees when he purchased a couple of prints to decorate his small, dull office with vibrantly colored modern art.
“When I bought them, I was clueless who the artists were, but they were kind of neat,” he says. “While everyone else displayed sample axles and transmissions in their offices, I learned years later that I had hung posters of Magritte and Helen Frankenthaler paintings.”
Joseph later gave them to Nancy for her office at Ernst & Young. Although they had no idea they were about to spend the next forty years collecting what would become a historic gift to the Cleveland Museum of Art, they knew immediately that they possessed complementary sensibilities and preferences for art.
“Nancy had Royal Copenhagen plates and flatware that were wonderful, elegant European designs, so I could see how her aesthetic and my aesthetic were perfect for one another,” Joseph says. “So in a way that’s how we started, and we began to put paintings on the walls.”
In 1979, they had an opportunity to live in London for a year while Nancy worked as a consultant and Joseph as a salesman. They lived in a furnished flat, but they spent many hours visiting London galleries and became comfortable traveling through Europe in search of art. When they returned to Cleveland, they moved into a house on Fairhill Road that had an English Cotswold feel to it, so they began to appoint it appropriately with art purchased at Bonfoey and Vixseboxse galleries.
In the mid-1980s, a friend held a small party to introduce the Keithleys to two artists who went on to become good friends and part of their growing art collection: Joseph and Algesa O’Sickey.
“After that, the O’Sickeys invited us to their house,” Joseph says. “That started a great relationship for us because Joe’s art was wonderful, and Algesa’s was wonderful, too. We bought one of her beautiful soft sculptures of the Brontë sisters. The dolls were four or five feet tall, and she made all of the clothes for them.”
Today, one of Joseph O’Sickey’s paintings from 1977, Garden Variations: Orange and Yellow, a stunning 60 X 70-inch canvas, adorns their breakfast room. Well, a high-resolution photograph of the masterwork does now, since the original was part of the Keithleys’ gift to the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2020. Although they display originals throughout their home, the Keithleys still enjoy looking at the high-resolution facsimiles CMA replaced their donated collection with. In fact, Joseph says, they admire them every day.
“When you have the art in your house, you get to spend more than two minutes looking at it,” he says, referring to museum or gallery viewing experiences. “You see it in different lights, different moods for yourself, and it begins to be really interesting, particularly, that’s what separates good art from banal art because you keep learning and seeing.”
Moreover, that friendship with the O’Sickeys became a turning point for the Keithleys, as they began to realize the joys of knowing the contemporary artists they wanted to collect and learning about the gallerists who represented them, especially in New York, London, and Paris, where they began to travel for auctions.
In 1984, on a trip to Avignon, France, the Keithleys visited a gallery where they saw a beautiful still life by a French painter.
“I’m sure you could find her in a book somewhere, but she’s hardly important, and the price was $1,000,” Joseph recalls. “I said to the dealer, ‘how did you arrive at the price?’ He said, ‘because that’s how much things go for.’ It gave me a sense of how much we didn’t know.”
They also returned home knowing they still had much to learn about what art is collectable. Thus, the Keithleys grew increasingly involved with CMA, with Nancy becoming a trustee in 2001 and serving as chair of the accessions advisory and collections committees from 2006 to 2011. She is currently a member of the executive, buildings and grounds, and collections committees.
“We began to tap into the curatorial staff at the Cleveland Museum of Art,” Joseph informs. “It was surprising how willing they are to work with people who are interested in art, so we had the benefit of traveling with them and growing intellectually, and we had more money to spend.”
“It was truly educational to look at paintings with them and see what they saw,” Nancy says. “That was invaluable.”
In 2013, they established the Nancy and Joseph Keithley Institute for Art History at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Museum of Art, which not only provided additional resources to support curatorial and scholarly art education, it also advanced inclusive initiatives, artistic exploration, and community engagement for nearly all University Circle institutions.
Early on, the Keithleys had no aspirations to acquire art at CMA’s level of collection, Nancy recounts. But as they got to know the museum better, saw and learned more, they began to work their way up, exploring different genres such as abstract expressionist art to see whether that was a good fit for them and their expanding collection.
In 2001, they had a memorable experience with CMA when they purchased Tulips by Henri Matisse, which one of the curators had recommended they look into when it became available from a New York art dealer. The director at the time, Katherine Lee Reed, took down a painting so they could hang it in one of the galleries.
“Then we all looked at it, and we said, ‘does this stand up to the other paintings?’” Joseph says. “The answer was ‘yes,’ and we both thought, ‘wow, they would be willing to do this.’”
Matisse’s depiction of a bouquet of colorful tulips that expresses “a joyful sentiment” in a vase that “rests precariously” on the edge of a table eventually became part of the Keithleys’ landmark donation to CMA twenty years later.
“Never did anyone say to us, ‘what are you going to do with your collection?” Nancy informs. “Never was there any pressure. It was very generous of them to share their time, so it just became obvious to us.”
Joseph adds: “Whether it was the director or a curator that we were working with, we said, be honest with us. If this picture is good enough for you to hang and add to the permanent collection, tell us. If it isn’t, there are a lot of pictures out there, so we’ll move on to the next picture.”
In the fall of 2019, they began serious talks with Director William Griswold about contributing the majority of their collection. In 2020, their monumental gift to the Cleveland Museum of Art of 114 artworks worth more than $100 million was the largest gift to the museum in sixty years, since Leonard C. Hanna gave a significant collection. Considered a catalyst to elevate the museum’s impact and accessibility, the Keithleys’ collection featured prized works by Picasso, Vuillard, Bonnard, Avery, Braque, Pissarro, Wyeth and Joan Mitchell, along with a series of watercolors by John Marin and a group of Chinese and Japanese ceramics.
“Joe and Nancy Keithley are among the greatest supporters of art and culture in Cleveland—and beyond,” says Griswold. “Their commitment to the Cleveland Museum of Art, their foundational contribution to our joint program in art history with Case Western Reserve University, and their transformative gift to the CMA of their entire collection of paintings and other works of art in early 2020 place them squarely in the firmament of our community’s most outstanding philanthropists.”
The transition wasn’t easy, though, because a team of seven art handlers spent every day at the Keithleys’ home for three weeks, taking down pictures and carefully preparing them for delivery to their new and permanent home at CMA. Fortunately, the team completed its enormous task before the pandemic hit.
“As everybody knows, in March 2020, the world changed, and we didn’t have any art,” Nancy says. “The two of us had a lot of time together but nothing particularly to look at. Joe was bereft at that development, but in May and June of 2020, the facsimiles started to arrive, so he felt more at peace.”
“In the end, I really think we rent the stuff,” Joseph says sagaciously. “When you’re dead it’s going to somebody else. So it was with that frame of mind that Nancy and I thought that if CMA and the people of Cleveland would like to have it, we’d give it to them, because we never thought about this as an investment. This was an expense.”
In October, the Cleveland Arts Prize presented the Keithleys with the Barbara S. Robinson Prize, a prestigious honor awarded to individuals for their extraordinary commitment to the advancement of the arts.