Duke Libraries are blessed to have generous and discriminating donors. As a group, donors rightly are drawn to the high-profile collections for which our Libraries are known. In sparer cases these donors retain their interests in the circulating subject collections from which their interest developed. Last Thursday, one such person, the Ur-donor of my collecting areas of art and architecture, died. Donor and friend. Read, then, below, how to be both.
I met my namesake shortly after arriving at Duke’s East Campus Library in the 1990s. He was already retired (one of the last times we had lunch he quipped, “I’ve been retired from Duke longer than I worked there!”). From the start, “Professor Phelps” was interested in what we did in art libraries, not just books. The long-time head of the German Department, his avocation was art and architecture, but like most things Leland Phelps was interested in, it was difficult to distinguish a hobby from career. Together with his wife, the late Ruth Phelps, they were already passionate art collectors, connoisseurs or musicians. It should be every librarian’s privilege to discuss library acquisitions in a home with Schumann being played in the background on a baby grand piano. Such was nearly any visit to the Phelps’.
Library donors maintain a keen interest in how their money is spent, and rightly so. Art books of importance, however–expensive things outside the regular budget of an academic art library–are often about strange art: Barnet Newman’s splash paintings, or the ragged representations of Berlin street whores of 1920s German Expressionism (dressed, as their subterfuge was at the time, as widows), or the fat-and-fur sculptures of Josef Beuys. Donors are some times hesitant to plop money down on those monographs. But not in Lee’s case. He understood. He understood as a scholar you need to study it all, even that which you don’t admire. Yet in most cases, he did. He loved modern art, innately sensing that progressive culture demanded chancy products. It seemed to me the more difficult the book topic was, the more likely he’d fund it. Catalogues raisonnés (the scholarly “all the works of an artist” that are the core of undergraduate papers and dissertation-research alike) funded by the Phelps at Duke include: Paul Klee (five volumes), Wassily Kandinksy (four volumes), Egon Schiele, Christo, Nolde, Jawlensky and Beuys.
The real treat–to a bibliographer such as myself at least–was to encounter a student using a book from Ruth or Lee’s personal collection donated years before any of our own arrivals. Whenever I got the chance, I’d remind the nineteen-year-old that libraries run on the largess of the literate and generous. The history of the Duke University Libraries bookplates could just about be written using solely Phelps donations. Frequently these had been the result of Lee phoning up, “Did you see [dealer's name] catalog that the Rothko book on remainder!” barely saying hello first. “If you need it, I’ll buy it.”
Like donors whom you know well, it was with Lee that the friendship came first. More than once our lunch conversations got so intent that I forgot to take the check he said he’d written for me. Lee had been stationed in the army air corps in Europe immediately during the Korean war. The ravage of the country still discernible brought him no pleasure. A bookman from the first, he spoke of getting hard currency into the local’s hands buying books from the dealer’s stalls in bombed out cities, regretting his military pay would not allow purchase of a copy of Insel Verlag’s little book on Kandinsky, each with an original Kandinsky in it. Having grown up in Detroit, he knew the Institute of Art so well he could recount installations from the 1930s there as if he’d just come from the show. My personal interest of art historiography was deeply rewarded by Lee. He knew the inside scoop on W.R. Valentiner (1880-1958), the great director of the DIA and later at the fledgling North Carolina Museum of Art. He was friends with Justus Bier (1899-1990), Valentine’s successor at the NCMA and saw to it that Duke picked up the riches of that scholar’s book collection when it came up for sale. The rare raconteur, his were always stories with a point.
A text from the religious tradition he and I both shared reminds us that “Whomsoever much is given, much is required.” It seems amazing to me, considering how much he gave, that any person was afforded so much.