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Philly exhibit showcases newly robust contemporary art collection, thanks to Sachs gift

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Works of art recently donated by Keith and Katherine Sachs are on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Works of art recently donated by Keith and Katherine Sachs are on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

In a new exhibit, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is showcasing a collection of donated works from Keith and Katherine Sachs that is expected to transform the encyclopedic institution into a powerhouse of contemporary art.

“This museum, which covers art from all ages, has now a very strong interest — a very strong commitment to art of its time,” said curator Carlos Basualdo, who put together “Embracing the Contemporary: The Collection of Keith and Katherine Sachs.”

The bulk of the exhibition is in the museum’s rotating gallery, which groups the collection by artist and theme. Other pieces are scattered throughout the museum’s permanent exhibits of modern art, to show how the Sachs’ collection integrates with the museum’s collection.

“One day, I had one important work by [sculptor] Robert Gober to work with, the following day I had six,” said Basualdo, whose position is underwritten by the Sachses. “This allows you to tell more interesting stories, and more stories in general.”

The Sachses are longtime patrons of the museum (Katherine started working there as a volunteer in 1970, later becoming part of the curatorial staff) who started collecting in the 1980s. Over the years, they bought works by Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Hamilton, Brice Marden, and many others.

They often consulted with the art museum before buying, developing a very focused and driven collecting process.

“We actually had a hit list of artists we wanted to go after,” she said. “But sometimes — when we were in New York or London or around the world — we would see things that piqued our interest. When you bring something a little different into a collection, the conversations get louder.”

The Sachses used the art they bought to decorate their homes in suburban Philadelphia and an apartment in New York. When they were first married in the 1970s, they bought abstract expressionist work from midcentury.

“Once we got comfortable, we wanted to be contemporary,” said Katherine Sachs. “It’s not cutting-edge, but it’s contemporary. We started collecting video. We can put it on all the TVs. It enlivens the environment of the house, and gives us a contemporary view of the world.”

As the collection grew, some piece went into storage. The exhibition is the first time some pieces have ever seen each other.

The 97-piece collection fills gaps in the museum’s existing collection, and establishes seminal works on which the museum can grow, such as large-scale photography and video art.

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