Kassers Donate $2.5 Million to Tucson Museum of Art

By Chuck Graham –

Latin and Pre-Columbian Collection to Have Own Wing

Tucson’s role as a leading arts oasis of the Southwest took a giant step forward when business leader I. Michael Kasser and his wife, Beth, donated $2.5 million to the Tucson Museum of Art. A longtime member of the museum’s board of trustees, Michael Kasser also is president and CEO of Tucson-based Holualoa Companies, a real estate investment firm.

The museum announced the contribution as “the single most significant individual donor gift in the museum’s history.”

In a companion move, Kasser offered his personal collection of pre-Columbian and Latin American art to the museum as a longterm loan. Included are more than 250 objects from the pre-Columbian period.

The TMA will combine Kasser’s pieces with the museum’s own Latin American and pre-Columbian collection of approximately 1,000 pieces – including the Frederick R. Pleasants and Paul L. and Alice C. Baker collections. TMA also will break ground next spring for a 6,000-square-foot expansion gallery to be named the Kasser Family Wing. It will be architecturally integrated into the museum complex by unifying the main museum building and the John K. “Jack” Goodman Pavilion.

Plans call for the wing to be completed in the fall of 2019.

“This is the first expansion of the present museum building since it opened in 1975,” said TMA CEO Jeremy Mikolajczak. “From the museum’s beginning in 1924 there has been a long-standing commitment to pre-Columbian art because of its historic importance to this region.

“The impact of this gift will be tremendous. Its importance is much bigger than just the museum. It will put Tucson on the national map as a center for researching this period.” 

Kasser said, “This is exactly why I wanted my collection to stay here in Tucson,” noting that several other institutions would have welcomed it. “This is right where it belongs. This is the path the Indians took through the Southwest. They didn’t go through New York. They came through here.”

Kasser said that since the four years of childhood spent with his parents in Mexico, he has been fascinated by pre-Columbian sculptures, those squat figures so distinctively designed. Sometime during his 30s, when Kasser was an established businessman in the United 

States, he began buying pieces here and there.

“About 25 years ago I started buying seriously, going to auctions and estate sales,” said Kasser, 77. “I have such an emotional attachment, especially to the sculptures. Some are more than 1,000 years old.

“Just to hold a piece in my hands, something that old, that somebody has put so much work into – that’s a feeling you don’t forget. It’s like receiving a message from the artist’s spirit.”

In keeping with the museum’s stated mission of “Connecting Art to Life,” Mikolajczak is developing elaborate plans to use the expanded collection to create interpretative exhibits. Those exhibits will represent the origins of all the distinct cultures that first came here, how those cultures mixed and how they represent today the rich cultural diversity of Tucson and the Southwest.

“It is important to the museum to assist in adding that spark to these conversations in the community between the past and present, for the museum to be an active participant in the diversity that we have emerging,” he said.

Key to developing this role at the museum is selecting a curator for the entire pre-Columbian and Latin American collection. The museum previously announced a donation by Jeanette H. and Bernard L. Schmidt to endow a staff position of curator of Latin American Art. That post will be filled early in 2019.

“Our national search committee is going through applications now. We will begin interviews this summer,” said Mikolajczak. “This is a very serendipitous occasion for us.”

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