An Outsider’s Gift to the Art World

It is perhaps ironic that a person educated at a prestigious institution like Wharton and wielding a professional degree from an almost equally impressive institution (a J.D. from Harvard) would collect the artwork of individuals who possess no formal training.

Sheldon Bonovitz, W’59, and wife Jill do just that. They own more than several hundred pieces from “outsider artists”—people who are self-taught or otherwise did not participate in traditional “artistic discourse.”

Their collection recently gained accolades. The Bonovitzes gave more than 200 of their works of outsider artists, selected by the curators, as a promised gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the iconic institution celebrated with a limited-run exhibition, Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection.

Alas, if this is the first you have heard about Great and Mighty Things, you are too late; the exhibit ran from March 3 through June 9. The collection then returned to the Bonovitzes and will be donated to the museum after their lifetimes.

Still, the exhibit is worth mentioning for a couple of reasons. It was a huge hit. Journalists and critics applauded it—see the New York Times piece “No More on the Outside Looking In,” by Roberta Smith—and the public was smitten. About 600 people attended the opening alone, and as many as 5,500 area school children were bused in to look at the artwork. When I spoke with Sheldon Bonovitz, he recalled strangers approaching him and his wife on the street to thank them and share their experiences. One woman told them about how she brought her autistic brother to the exhibition—his first such experience—and he loved it.

“We never anticipated that kind of response,” Bonovitz says. “We really got critical and public acceptance of the show,” though he adds they were aiming for as broad an audience as possible.

Great and Mighty Things also is worth mentioning for the uniqueness of the collection. Some of the included artists such as William Edmondson, Martín Ramírez and Bill Traylor have earned relevance in the art world despite their outsider status. Outsider artists often express themes of their surroundings, popular culture, personal experiences and religion, using whatever materials are available, such as soot, sheet metal, house paint and reclaimed wood.

The pieces are relatable for the layperson and exceptional from a critical perspective. They are approachable (even by my 3-year-old daughter Frida, who attended a showing with me and my wife) and the wonder they inspire only increases the more you learn about the artists and their work. For instance, take “Boffo,” a huge image of a bison created from house paint, Masonite, fiberboard and starch chunks. The artist, William Hawkins, was an unemployed janitor who didn’t make it past the third grade. Hawkins didn’t “get discovered” until his 80s, when he won first prize at the 1982 Ohio State Fair.

For Bonovitz, outside art first astounded he and his wife when they attended a black folk art show in 1982.Their emotional reaction to the artwork and the artists’ stories have attracted them to the genre ever since. The idea that artistic creativity and brilliance can be found anywhere, especially not just the usual ivory-tower places, is a very important realization for Bonovitz, and something that could be instructive to all who experienced Great and Mighty Things.

“There is no fence around genius,” he says.

He and his wife made a gift of a collection of Indian textiles, called Kanthas, to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, exhibited at the museum in 2009. They also very recently made a commitment to give another collection of Indian textiles to the Philadelphia Museum of Art called Phulkaris, which will be exhibited at the museum in 2017. Bonovitz is a trustee of numerous boards in Philadelphia, including the museum’s, and is chairman and a founder of the Foundation of Self-Taught Artists. He serves as chairman emeritus of Duane Morris LLP, having stepped down as chairman in January 2008 to resume full-time practice.

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