Who is Kathryn E. Hurd?

Kathryn E. Hurd’s portrait, which hangs at the bottom of the museum’s Rotunda staircase with the condition laid out by Mrs. Hurd that it must always remain on a wall of the Williams College Museum of Art.

Kathryn E. Hurd’s last will and testament begins with this phrase:

“I give, devise, and bequeath to the Lawrence Museum of Williams College my paintings and pictures. I direct my Executor hereinafter named to divide the proceeds of my estate into two equal shares. One share will be given to the Lawrence Museum for the purpose of the creation of a fund to be known as the “Kathryn E. Hurd Fund”; the income from which shall be used for the purchase annually of art by living artists who are citizens of America.”

When Kathryn E. Hurd died in January 1982 at the age of 74, little was known of her life. She was a long-time resident of Manhattan, and had no living relatives (as far as anybody knew) and no known connections to Williams College or the museum.

The “paintings and pictures” referenced in her will included, most notably, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Skunk Cabbage (1922), a perfect complement to WCMA’s collection of modern art. Still, the legacy that Mrs. Hurd left to the museum was not only her generous gift of art, but also her prescient gift to support work by living American artists. Works by Enrique Chagoya, Ann Hamilton, Adrian Piper, and Kiki Smith are just a sampling of the art acquired in the last two decades with the help of the Kathryn E. Hurd Fund.

Yet the question on everyone’s mind when the gift was made was: Why did this longtime New Yorker choose the Williams College Museum of Art as the recipient of such a generous gift?  A 1983 letter to former WCMA director S. Lane Faison, Jr. from then director Thomas Krens suggested an explanation:

“She still remains a mystery. She has no surviving family and no known connection to Williams. But I spoke to one of her friends in New York, who could offer…the recollection that Mrs. Hurd had driven through Williamstown some time ago, visited the museum, and was so impressed with her reception, that she ultimately changed her will, writing in the Lawrence Art Museum…”

Although we may never know the real reason Kathryn E. Hurd made such a generous donation to WCMA, according to Mrs. Heyman (a longtime friend of Hurd), Hurd’s “interest in art was always with her….she was close to all the galleries and visited at least one almost daily. One of her closest contacts was Edith Halpert who ran the Downtown Gallery [where she purchased Skunk Cabbage in 1948]…I do not remember the year she visited the [WCMA]. I was not surprised at her bequest.”

Whether it was because of the kind reception she received at the museum or because the Williams College Museum of Art seemed a suitable choice to a genteel woman with a taste for modernism, it is clear that the museum has benefited greatly, and will continue to reap those benefits, from the bequest of Kathryn E. Hurd.

Excerpted from WCMAmail Winter/Spring 2004, Profile – Kathryn E. Hurd: Magnanimous Stranger, Contemporary Legacy by Melissa Cirone.

One Response to Who is Kathryn E. Hurd?

  1. Tim "the Atlanta Picture Framer" says:

    This is actually a very heart-warming story. People making such kinds of donations often want great fanfare over it, to have buildings named after them, or some other big to-do. Apparently Ms. Hurd was a much more modest kind of woman, and took satisfaction in donating her paintings and helping the school and others….just a single small portrait of her for people to remember her by.

    I think the best gifts are the ones that don’t expect anything in return.