Artist Andy Warhol, claimed one of his patrons, banker Richard Weisman, “didn’t know the difference between a football and a golf ball.”
(Really. Warhol frustrated Jack Nicklaus during a photo session by continually calling his golf club a “stick,” and in his diary wrote of Tom Seaver that the pitcher “was adorable. Athletes really do have fat in the right places, and they’re young in the right places.”)
Still, Weisman, who appreciated both athletics and art, commissioned the artist in 1977 to create an edition of silk-screen portraits of 10 top sports stars of the time. One of those iconic images is of tennis champion Chris Evert. You won’t find that artwork at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts or Institute of Contemporary Art; it is on display in the Billie Jean King Gallery at the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum in Newport, R.I.
Sports halls of fame are not big collectors and displayers of art, which makes this one in Newport so different.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., does have an art collection of more than 1,500 works (including pieces by Warhol, LeRoy Neiman, and Norman Rockwell) but no more than 30 are ever displayed at any one time, while the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, has some “limited edition prints, but not a lot of original art,” according to curator Jason Aikens.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum has a grouping of 13 paintings by Neiman that he was commissioned to create in 1962, as well as other original artwork, although “a lot of it looks like illustration,” said the museum’s director, Ellen Bireley.
Those looking for art needn’t bother with the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Chicago or the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., and the US Hockey Hall of Fame Museum in Eveleth, Minn., has only photographs and uniforms.
But the museum of the Tennis Hall of Fame has 18 galleries that tell the origins and history of the sport through displays of equipment, clothing, trophies, event memorabilia, and works of art. There are works of real art in every gallery.
“We have the earliest depiction of tennis in a painting,” said Douglas Stark, director of the museum, referring to Flemish painter Lucas Gassel’s 1538 oil on wood “The Grounds of a Renaissance Palace,” which shows a friendly game in progress. You can’t miss that work, since it is centrally located in Gallery One.
Amidst the museum displays also are a circa 1930 drawing of Bill Tilden by James Montgomery Flagg (best known for his iconic Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster), as well as a 1924 etching of Helen Wills by American Impressionist painter Childe Hassam, and a 1920-21 lithograph of the building and grounds of the Tennis Hall of Fame by Ashcan School artist George Bellows.
One finds lots more. There are more than a thousand works of art in the museum’s collection of more than 25,000 objects, such as a painting of a woman resting from her tennis exertions by British painter Francis Sydney Muschamp, a silk-screen image by Art Deco artist Erte, and a bronze of King’s hand holding a tennis racquet by American Tico Torres.
We see other works — most depicting a tennis player but not always — by Neiman, caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, and French academician Paul Sieffert.
“We have quite a lot of art in the collection, and it is an area we are looking to expand,” said Nicole Markham, the museum’s curator. The museum has an acquisitions fund, which distinguishes it from every other sports hall of fame, and the museum’s board members keep an eye out for tennis-related art works that come up for sale. (Board members chipped in to purchase the Gassel when it came up at auction some years ago.)
“We get many visitors who are interested in art, as well as in architecture,” Stark said.
The architecture part is the main building, known as the Newport Casino (not referring to gambling, “casino” is Italian for small villa), which was designed by the renowned American architectural firm McKim, Mead & White in 1880 for James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald. (If you want to know what Bennett looked like, there is a painting of him by Ashcan School artist George Luks.)
This was McKim, Mead & White’s first building as a firm, and it is considered one of the signature examples of Victorian shingle-style architecture.
The casino was not only Bennett’s summer residence but served as a country club for Newport’s other wealthy residents and was the home from 1881 to 1914 of the National Lawn Tennis Championships, which morphed into what is now the US Open.
The site still hosts a professional tournament every year in mid-July, taking place immediately after Wimbledon, and is the only ATP grass-court tournament in the US.
Also distinguishing the Tennis Hall of Fame from other sports halls is that this is still a country club, although now open to the general public, and many visitors come for the rare chance to play outdoors on grass between late May and early October (it isn’t cheap, costing $110 for one hour for two players, $210 per hour for a foursome).
There also is an outdoor clay court and three indoor hard courts, costing between $32 and $46 per hour, depending on the time of day.
“A lot of our visitors come in wearing shorts, racquets in hand, waiting for their scheduled time to play,” Stark said.