In my career as a museum director and art historian, I have met many passionate and generous art collectors. When I met Don ’59 and Harriet Rothfeld, I knew I had met a couple with a different approach to art and to collecting art. They were a different type of collector, a different type of donor. They are inquisitive about the process of making art, interested in the ideas surrounding fine art, and frequent visitors to artist’s studios, galleries and museums. Committed to a particular aesthetic, non-objective art, the Rothfelds have befriended artists, curators and critics, allowing these relationships to educate their discerning eye. They have a concentrated collection and a new piece only enters their collection if both Don and Harriet are equally excited about the work. Their choices are thoughtful. According to the Rothfelds, their collecting experience has enhanced their personal lives and they want to share this experience and these pieces with the Muhlenberg community.
As a specialist in American modernism, I have been privy to some of the most prestigious art collections in the nation. I consider the Rothfeld collection to be an impressive assembly of works by both the established and new forces in contemporary art. Works in their collection by such internationally recognized artists as Petah Coyne, Helen Frankenthaler and Isaac Witkin demonstrate the Rothfelds’ knowledge of art history, interest in the contemporary art scene and informed collecting patterns.
While the Rothfelds are committed collectors, they are similarly focused in their giving. Their generosity and support of the Martin Art Gallery, like that of many alumni and friends of the gallery, has been a driving force here for many years. In 1997, Don and Harriet Rothfeld told me of their intention to give works of art to the College’s art collection on an annual basis and never have they wavered from their commitment to that statement or to the College. The art from the Rothfeld gift has enlivened our campus as donated works are on view in campus classrooms, student lounges, social areas, conference rooms, offices and the President’s residence. Of course, pieces are often included in the Martin’s active traveling exhibition program, where art from the Martin’s collection is organized into exhibitions and loaned to other academic galleries and museums. The pieces from the Rothfelds’ annual gift, along with our Robert Rauschenberg work gifted by Dr. Barry Altman ’54, have become the cornerstone of the contemporary art collection at Muhlenberg.
While I am impressed by the Rothfelds’ collection and grateful for their generosity to the Martin, I am always most moved when Don and Harriet visit our campus. To see the Rothfelds’ excitement, as they rediscover a work that was once displayed in their home reinstalled in the Muhlenberg student union or a student lounge, is nothing short of wonderful. We are fortunate that, like many of the most influential members of the contemporary art community, Don and Harriet Rothfeld have befriended all of us at Muhlenberg.
This year, we celebrated the Rothfeld gift with an exhibition, A Passion for Collecting: Selections from the Rothfeld Gift, and reception for which the Rothfelds returned to campus and enjoyed an evening with former distinguished professors, campus professionals and fellow alumni. Supported by the Friends of the Martin Art Gallery and the office of alumni relations, the exhibition received rave reviews during its run from November 6 through December 31, 2003.
As Don Rothfeld noted during his gallery talk at the exhibition’s opening reception, “It has been a wonderful experience for two people who knew nothing about art when we started collecting in the early 1970s. When we learned that there was an active studio arts program and gallery at Muhlenberg, we responded by donating works annually. We are very pleased with the response we have received from Dr. Lori Verderame and other College leaders, as well as from students with whom we have spoken on campus. We thank all the artists and Muhlenberg community members who have helped us to think in a discerning way about art and, thus, have ultimately enriched our lives.”
Accompanied by the numerous contributors and supporters involved in the Friends of the Martin Art Gallery program, the Rothfelds and all of our generous alumni have enriched our lives in art at Muhlenberg.