Detroit Institute of Arts Opens Gift of a Lifetime: The James Pearson Duffy Collection

Detroit collector’s bequest features eclectic mix of styles, subjects and artists

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) recently received a generous bequest and rich art collection from James Pearson Duffy, one of Detroit’s most unorthodox collectors. Gift of a Lifetime: The James Pearson Duffy Collection, on view Sept. 14, 2011–March 18, 2012, showcases this varied collection of drawings, paintings, prints, sculptures and photographs. The exhibition is organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts and is free with museum admission.

Seated Male Nude, Marsden Hartley, 1923. Pastel on thin cream laid paper. Bequest of James Pearson Duffy. Detroit Institute of Arts

For 40 years, Duffy was one of the great characters of the Detroit art scene, with a free-thinking approach to looking at and acquiring art. He was often guided by his intuition, and the collection that resulted represents a variety of interests—from contemporary photography to mixed-media work by Detroit’s Cass Corridor artists, to historical Chinese ceramics.

“Jim Duffy meant a great deal to the Detroit art scene in general and to the DIA in particular,” said Graham W. J. Beal, DIA director. “In recognition of his lifelong support and sizeable bequest, the DIA’s department of contemporary art is named for him. His art collection has greatly enhanced our own, and this exhibition celebrates his life and generosity with some of the artworks he so cherished and left for the enjoyment of us all.”

Duffy (1923-2009) owned and operated a successful pipefitting warehouse on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit. When he wasn’t working, he was indulging his passion for art, building a collection that includes a wide range of objects. But his main passion was for contemporary art.

Duffy immersed himself in the art world and spent a good deal of time collecting in New York. He was the first to buy the now-celebrated 1970s works of Philip Guston, as well as the work of Elizabeth Murray. Among the other New York artists whose works he collected are Joel Shapiro and Linda Benglis.

The first section of Gift of a Lifetime provides the opportunity to explore the art scene of 1970s New York, when artists experimented with a variety of nontraditional materials, broke down the concept of hard-edged art as they played with geometry, and developed multiple ways of portraying figures. Among the works from this time period are Saturn by Vija Celmins, Felsztyn (Sketch) by Frank Stella and Andy Warhol’s Mao.

The second gallery focuses on Detroit. In the 1970s and 80s, a group of artists came together near Cass Avenue in Detroit to redefine what was considered aesthetically beautiful. They became known as the Cass Corridor artists, and their art was raw, gritty and unconventional—much like the city itself. Duffy was intrigued by their emotionally charged portraits, use of scavenged materials and unfinished surfaces, and he became one their biggest supporters. Works by Gordon Newton, Nancy Mitchnick, Ann Mikolowski and Sibyl Oshinsky are some of the Cass Corridor artists represented.

The third gallery offers a “look” inside Duffy’s apartment to see how he arranged his collection. One section features works that were either on display in his living room or stored in his basement gallery. As he amassed his collection, Duffy transformed his apartment into a rotating gallery, freely combining objects of varying styles and periods.

Throughout the exhibition, visitors will be encouraged to reflect on their own collections. In addition, the DIA has a Flickr page where the public can post photos and stories of items they collect. These can be anything from coins to figurines to ticket stubs. Select postings will become part of a slide show in the exhibition. To participate, go to

Hours and Admission
Museum hours are 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 10 a.m.–10 p.m. Fridays, and 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, $4 for ages 6-17, and free for DIA members. For membership information call 313-833-7971.

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