Words by Katie Rose McEneely / Photography by robin subar
For 40 years, Belverd Needles, Jr. and Marian Powers Needles of Wilmette have collected American prints created in the space between the 19th and 20th centuries.
Belverd Needles, Jr. and Marian Powers Needles of Wilmette have sustained an intense collaboration for 40 years.
Aside from sharing a discipline—Bel is the Ernst & Young Distinguished Professor of Accounting at DePaul University’s Driehaus College of Business, Marian an adjunct professor of executive education at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management—the two have spent their married life collecting American printworks from 1860 to 1960.
“We decided we would collect works on paper because they were affordable, you could have wonderful impressions by great artists,” Marian says. “We didn’t have as specific a focus [when we started].”
Their collection begins with early works by James Abbott McNeill Whistler and continues with works by George Bellows, Grant Wood, Edward Hopper, and numerous others.
“Whistler started his first major group in 1858, and that’s really the beginning of American printmaking as we know it today,” Bel explains. “We stopped at 1960 because that was a period when the big printmaking workshops were beginning,” and that mass-production undermined the intimacy of earlier, handcrafted prints created with an artist’s control.
The collection has three strict requirements: A work must be created by the artist’s hand; the work must be old enough that its role in the history of American printmaking can be assessed; and it must be in impeccable condition. Bel and Marian do much of the initial research about a prospective acquisition, most of which is done through private dealers. Marian says it’s a combination of their own focus, which is further directed by the dealers’ expertise.
In particular, they devoted a 10- to 15-year period to amassing works by women printmakers; the Needles own what may be the largest private collection of woman-made American prints in the country, containing works by Mary Cassatt, Blanche Lazzell, June Wayne, Ellen Lanyon, and others.
“We realized early on in our collection that there were very few women who were even acknowledged in any catalogues or retrospectives of periods of time,” Marian says. “The fun was partly in the finding, the whole broadening of the collection and bringing women artists to the fore.” Many of these works went on to make up the 2005 exhibition Paths to the Press: Printmaking and American Women Artists, 1910-1960 at Northwestern’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art and the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art at Kansas State University—the first major survey of U.S. female printmakers active during the first half of the 20th century.
One of these women, June Wayne, founded the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles. The workshop exists today as the Tamarind Institute at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and offers a space for artists and printmakers to stage professional collaborations. Wayne and painter-lithographer Clinton Adams—her former assistant and later a director at Tamarind—are the only two artists whose work the Needles have collected past 1960.
“While June was out all over the country promoting Tamarind, Clinton was back in Los Angeles running Tamarind,” Bel says; the Needles feel he’s never gotten the notice he deserves.
“One of our ambitions is to mount an exhibition of the works of June Wayne and Clinton Adams,” Bel adds. “We think it would make a wonderful story, these two giants of lithography.”
Marian isn’t sure how many prints they own. They display a small selection in their apartment and rotate them frequently, with the goal of enjoying the works as much as possible. This tactic is good for both eye and artwork; works on paper are notoriously sensitive to light.
Having recently downsized from their Winnetka home of 34 years, the bulk of their collection is in storage—save for 13 works loaned out for the Block Museum exhibition The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade”, 1929-1940, now on view at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery through April fourth.
Additionally, the Needles gifted 100 prints over two years to the art museum at DePaul, and over 60 of these images were part of the exhibit Ink, Paper, Politics: WPA-Era Printmaking from the Needles Collection, which ran from September to December 2014.
“This is the first time that we’ve made a donation, but it is our intention to do more of this with universities,” Marian says. As professors, the Needles are excited to have their donations become an accessible part of an academic institution’s collection, something that is available for further study and appreciation.
It’s an honorable and understandable desire: continuing education is as much a part of their collection as the act of collecting itself.
For more information on the collection of Belverd Needles Jr. and Marian Powers Needles, visit printsamerica.com.