Everyone Wants Free Art / by Brianna Nofil

The owners of the Gimbel Bros. Department Store look at a Hearst antiquity they hope to sell for the price of Not Free. (Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/95503526/>)

The owners of the Gimbel Bros. Department Store look at a Hearst antiquity they hope to sell for the price of Not Free. (Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/95503526/>)

In 1938, things were not looking so great for William Randolph Hearst. Though the Depression had not hit him as hard as many of his insanely-rich peers (Hearst had relatively little money in the stock market) he had still suffered significant financial losses. His advisors began pressuring him to sell his massive collection of art and artifacts. By 1938, Hearst had five, multi-story warehouses, as well as multiple mansions, filled with antiquities. Many of these objects he had never actually seen. Surely he could let some of them go, his advisors insisted.

In March 1938, a dispatch from the United Press appeared in local newspapers throughout the country, announcing that Hearst would begin dismantling his art collection. Most would be sold at auction, but the article also suggested that Hearst might make some donations to worthy cultural institutions. 

The possibility of getting a piece of the Hearst bounty for free opened the floodgates. Within weeks, dozens of letters poured in from all over the country—mostly polite inquiries, asking if Hearst would consider a small donation to an individual or institution. You won’t even miss your antique dueling pistol/17th century wooden commode/French late gothic column, eager Americans assured him.

Nearly all of the letters tried to make a personal connection to Hearst himself. A representative  of the Springfield Art Museum reminded Hearst that his mother was born in the Missouri Ozarks, and claimed that their mothers had taught school together. The writer requested Hearst “favor his mother’s native land.” The Superintendent of Whitmire Public Schools in central South Carolina wrote “I realize there is no reason, no real reason of logic, why you should make any gift of art to the State of South Carolina,” but proceeded to mention that Hearst's grandmother was born in South Carolina, and perhaps this locale could become a “point of pilgrimage” for Hearst enthusiasts.

Others made their loyalty to the Hearst empire known—one letter writer included a P.S. mentioning that she had subscribed to the San Francisco Examiner (Hearst’s flagship newspaper) for 25 years.

But the majority of the inquiries came from small, off-the-beaten-path museums, far from the coasts. Places like Little Rock, Arkansas’ Museum of Fine Arts stressed that this was an opportunity for Hearst to engage with Americans who would never otherwise have the chance to see such works. “Having something from the ‘Hearst Collection,” wrote a curator, “would mean so much to our Museum and to Arkansas.” A representative from Bucknell University wrote that their average student “comes from typical American homes in the low income class, who have little opportunity to see such paintings as you have collected.”

In the end, very few of these cultural institutions received parts of the Hearst Collection. Hearst’s antiques stayed concentrated in institutions on the coasts, with substantial donations to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Met. Still, many communities ended up with pieces of the Hearst Collection thanks to local philanthropists who traveled to Hearst’s firesale, seeking to bring a part of the world's cultural history to small-town America.