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Arts and Humanities

The art of giving

A donation of three paintings worth $12.1 million will transform the Ackland Art Museum’s permanent collection of post-war and contemporary art.

Ackland Art museum

Jane Roughton Kearns, a longtime supporter of UNC-Chapel Hill and parent of three Carolina graduates, has bequeathed three paintings, valued at $12.1 million, to the Ackland Art Museum.

“We are grateful to Jane Roughton Kearns and her wonderful commitment to the Ackland,” said Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz. “Her gift underscores the importance of the arts to our campus, to our community and to each of us — particularly at a time when our cultural institutions are providing important inspiration and joy through new virtual channels.”

The Ackland’s permanent collection currently consists of more than 19,000 works of art, featuring North Carolina’s premier collections of Asian art and works on paper, as well as significant collections of European masterworks, 20th-century and contemporary art, and North Carolina pottery. The Ackland is the only public university art museum in the United States to own a collection of drawings by Rembrandt van Rijn.

Untitled, 1962
Oil on canvas
63 ¾ x 38 ⅛ in.
(161.925 x 96.838 cm)
Private collection
© Estate of Joan Mitchell

The three paintings bequeathed to the Ackland — two by Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) and one by Milton Avery (1885-1965) — will be transformational for the Ackland’s permanent collection of post-war and contemporary American art.

“These remarkable works by American masters are emblematic of the best of American modernism and, importantly, fill gaps in the Ackland collection,” said Katie Ziglar, director of the Ackland. “Grand paintings, with significant wall power, these paintings will enrich and enliven the University’s engagement with modern creativity, opening up questions about the role of abstraction and representation, the achievements of women artists, the relationship to tradition and so much else. We are so thankful to Jane for her great generosity and delighted to be receiving these paintings.”

Peter Nisbet, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Ackland, said that the opportunity to add two major canvasses by Joan Mitchell, a leading member of the second generation of abstract expressionist artists, is tremendously important. “The Ackland will now be able to tell a fuller, more nuanced story about the history of modern avant-garde art and is especially pleased to be able to do so through the work of a leading artist.”

The museum currently owns 10 works by Milton Avery, a key figure in American mid-century art. “These drawings, watercolors and oils cover every decade of his working life except for the 1950s, a lacuna now triumphantly filled by the promised gift of his lyrically beautiful landscape, ‘Spring in New Hampshire,'” Nisbet said.

“I am thrilled that these paintings will go to UNC-Chapel Hill and the Ackland,” shared Kearns. “Even though I didn’t graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, I have a lot of loyalty for Carolina. My family has attended the University for generations, and I think it’s an exceptional public university.”

Originally from North Carolina, Kearns currently resides in Darien, Connecticut. She graduated from Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the Inchbald School of Design in London. After working with Condé Nast design publications in New York, she and a partner founded The Design Collection, an interior design firm in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Kearns served as vice-chair of the Carolina Performing Arts International Advisory Board (2005-2013) and has supported Carolina Performing Arts, the College of Arts & Sciences and the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. In 2019, Kearns and her husband, Carolina alumnus and 1996 Davie Award recipient Thomas “Tom” Francis Kearns Jr. ’58, made a $3 million gift to The Rams Club to establish a point guard position scholarship for men’s basketball.

An art history major, Jane Kearns said she has always loved art, especially female artists and contemporary art. “I was fortunate enough to be able to start collecting art. It’s just something that is wonderful to live with and enjoy, and it enhances your life. It’s particularly stimulating and fun to live with contemporary art because it’s non-representational and can speak to so many things.”

Now, an important part of Kearns’ collection will enhance the lives of Ackland Art Museum patrons in perpetuity.

“Ever since I first saw these works a decade ago,” recalled Nisbet, “I have harbored the not-so-secret wish that they might find their way to the Ackland so that they might work their magic on future generations of the University’s students, visitors, staff, faculty and the public. The Ackland could not be more grateful to Jane for the opportunity to be the steward of these masterpieces. We pledge to use them well.”

Kearns’ bequest counts toward the University’s most ambitious fundraising campaign in history, For All Kind: the Campaign for Carolina, launched in October 2017. As of June 2020, the University has raised more than 76% of its goal to reach $4.25 billion by December 2022.