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Philanthropist Barbara Lee bestows $42m gift on ICA

A 57-foot-long multipart wall piece by Kara Walker that Lee’s gift includes.

Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art has announced a gift to the museum of 20 works by leading women artists, worth approximately $42 million. It’s the latest in a series of gifts of art made by women given to the museum by philanthropist and political activist Barbara Lee.

“The ICA is the ideal home for these works,” Lee said. “My gift puts women artists front and center at a world-class institution known for introducing people to the most important work of our time. I’m proud to support the ICA and hope this gift encourages others to follow my lead.”

Lee’s most recent gift is especially strong on sculpture. It includes two important sculptures by Eva Hesse, one by Louise Bourgeois, one by Sherrie Levine, and one by Marisol Escobar.


“Sculpture by women is actually a strength of our collection,” said Jill Medvedow, the ICA’s director. “Both the Eva Hesses are really strong. Her mature work is rare, because she died quite young, and most of her major work is already in other collections.”

The two Hesse gifts, “Ennead” (1966) and “Ascension IV” (1968) are “crucial,” Medvedow said, “to telling the story of so much work today.” Noting the influence Hesse had on many of the artists already in the ICA collection, including Tara Donovan, Lee said: “It’s one of the reasons this gift is so special.”

Lee’s latest gift also includes two portraits by Alice Neel and a 57-foot-long multipart wall piece by Kara Walker.

The announcement comes one year after a gift by Lee of 45 works worth approximately $10 million by 27 women artists. Nine other works from Lee’s collection were given or promised even earlier.

All the recent works are from the Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women, which was established at the ICA in 2014.

“Barbara Lee’s interest for a long time has been in art by women, that tells the story of women’s identity,” said Medvedow. “There is deep feeling behind this gift.”


Saluting Lee’s “incredible generosity and leadership,” Medvedow said she and Lee “have been in conversation for many years about art, social justice, gender, and audience.”

Lee, who earlier this year sold a large Lucian Freud painting of a naked Englishwoman named Sue Tilley for more than $56 million, has had a long association with the ICA. She has presented the ICA with approximately one-third of the 220 works in the permanent collection. Beyond those gifts, she was an important donor to the campaign to establish the museum’s current waterfront home in a building designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

When the ICA, under current director Medvedow, decided it would build a permanent collection in 2006, Lee presented it with its first work, Cornelia Parker’s “Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson).”

“She has a very strong vision of this collection, and I think that’s self-evident,” Medvedow said.

Lee, who has been collecting for more than three decades, has given financial support to many museum shows devoted to women artists, both in New England and beyond.

Next summer, many of her gifts to the ICA will feature in an exhibition highlighting 10 years of collecting at the museum.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.