Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Today's object from outside the Portland Art Museum is the smallest of the lot, unless there's an even smaller one I haven't noticed yet. Marie Louise Feldenheimer's Rhododendrons is a small bronze panel on a wall in the museum's outdoor sculpture court. I hadn't noticed it before, but it's been outside the art museum since at least 1978, which tells you something about my powers of observation, or lack thereof.

I wasn't familiar with the artist so I did a bit of digging. It seems she was a local heiress, born in 1894, whose father and uncle owned a Portland jewelry business. Her name first appeared in the paper in the society pages, and then she moved to New York City to study art, before eventually returning to Portland. A 1925 article showcased some Egyptian-influenced granite sculptures she'd recently created, Egyptian being all the rage at the time. These were purchased by "American Museum of New York", whichever one that is. The Smithsonian art database is no help in this case, since the only work of hers it lists is Rhododendrons. The RACC database also lists a Bust of Willem van Hoogstraten, conductor of the Oregon Symphony from 1925 to 1938, now located at the Performing Arts Center. Her work was the subject of a 1985 retrospective at the museum, in honor of her 90th birthday.

On the Oregon coast, south of Seaside, is popular Ecola State Park. Adjacent to the state park is the densely forested Elmer Feldenheimer State Natural Area, named for Marie Louise Feldenheimer's brother. A 1990 Oregonian profile of her explains that she'd donated the land in his memory. This was one of a number of philanthropic conservation efforts she was involved in, including Nature Conservancy projects at Tillamook Head, near Ecola State Park, and preservation work on the Olympic Peninsula with the guy who later started Ecotrust (the group behind the renovated Ecotrust Building in the Pearl District). Feldenheimer passed on in 1993 and left a large bequest to the state park system.

I'm not really in the business of praising rich people. If they're going to exist, though -- and I'm not entirely sold on that point -- they could do a lot worse than creating some art and doing a bit of philanthropy. I'm fairly sure this was the exception to the rule back in the mid-20th century, and it's certainly not very widespread now either. Some of our present-day oligarchs really and truly want to be Bond villains (and I won't list the guys I"m thinking of, because they have lawyers and worse), while others just want their own reality shows (and usually get them).

In the unlikely event that you're a real-life rich person and you're reading this, you've already passed the first test. The fact that you're here means you're far more sophisticated and discerning than most of your peers. So consider sending the kids to art school. Maybe donate to a museum or the state park system, or a local university. They'll happily put your name on something; you'd barely even need to ask. Any one of these things lasts longer than a family fortune does, even with today's crazy-low inheritance taxes. People will speak fondly of your wise and generous nature, and not ask impertinent questions about how you got all that money in the first place. Sorry, that slipped out. I mean, it helps you put your best foot forward, in the eyes of future historians, as well as random internet people of the future who have whatever replaces blogs fifty years from now. I can't really explain why that would be important, but I'm pretty sure it is.

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