Dijkstras and The Huntington: A Wonderful Romance

Over their 16 years of involvement with The Huntington, San Diego collectors Sandra and Bram Dijkstra have donated several key artworks that have greatly strengthened The Huntington’s American art holdings.

Expand image Two people pose next to an art piece on a wall.

Sandra and Bram Dijkstra. | Photo by Jamie Pham.

Rico Lebrun (1900-1964), Vertical Composition, 1945, oil on canvas
Rico Lebrun (1900–1964), Vertical Composition, 1945, oil on canvas, 70 × 32 in., frame: 75 1/4 × 37 7/8 in., The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Sandra and Bram Dijkstra. © Estate of Rico Lebrun.

Once again, the Dijkstras have bestowed their generosity upon The Huntington with the recent gift of Rico Lebrun’s Vertical Composition (1945), which is among the 19 striking works on view in the upcoming exhibition “Art for the People: WPA-Era Paintings from the Dijkstra Collection,” opening Dec. 2, 2023.

Drawn from the collection of Sandra and Bram Dijkstra, “Art for the People: WPA-Era Paintings from the Dijkstra Collection” and its accompanying catalog explore representational paintings created in the United States between the 1929 stock market crash and World War II. The exhibition focuses on Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) artists of the 1930s and early 1940s who were employed by the government to help stimulate the post-Depression economy. More than 10,000 artists participated, creating works that represented the nation and its people and seeking to express fundamental human concerns, basic democratic principles, and the plight of the dispossessed.

“What distinguishes this exhibition, whose relevance to today’s problems cannot be overstated, is that it redefines the art of the WPA, making it more inclusive of art produced in California, too often omitted, as well as art made by a much more diverse group of artists, whose styles and genres go way beyond the stereotypical idea of the period,” Sandra says. The exhibition “presents works characteristic of both American Scene and American Expressionism, as well as more timeless landscapes and figures.”

Bram is a cultural historian and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of many books, including a 2003 book on American Expressionism and its social relevance. Sandra is a powerhouse literary agent whose client roster boasts novelists Amy Tan and Lisa See, and Pulitzer Prize–winning historians Eric Foner and Stephen Hahn. She is especially proud to have been the agent and friend to Kevin Starr, the premier historian of California.

Sandra and Bram recently sat down with us to discuss what compelled them to make their recent gift, the upcoming exhibition, and their ongoing support of The Huntington.

Tell us a bit about your Huntington story.
We have been Huntington Members and admiring visitors for decades, first as grad students researching in the Library, and then as art aficionados, smitten by the British collection.

About a decade ago, Selma Holo, LA art maven and the former USC Fisher [Museum of Art] director, introduced us to The Huntington’s then-curator of American art, Jessica Smith, who saw our collection in Del Mar and at our mountain house in Julian. Thence began a wonderful romance: We met the former director of the Huntington Art Museum, Kevin Salatino, who persuaded us to donate a trifecta of our treasures to the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries: Landscape with Ruin by Robert Scott Duncanson, Bit of Silvermine - The Old Farm House by Charles Reiffel, and Soldier by Charles White.

Now, we are very proud The Huntington shall be presenting a small slice of our WPA collection in “Art for the People.”

Why did you decide to donate works from your collection to The Huntington?
The Huntington has assembled such a terrific, knowledgeable, and welcoming team of art experts. They brought in a great new generation of powerhouse art scholars and curators. Also, it’s important to us that gifts to The Huntington get shown, rather than lingering in vaults. So far, this has been The Huntington’s chief advantage over museums with tons in storage. Most important is the potential of The Huntington to become SoCal’s premier museum of American and British art.

You recently gifted Vertical Composition by Rico Lebrun to The Huntington. What compelled you to make this donation, and why is this work important?
Years ago, we were smitten by Rico Lebrun’s masterpiece mural Genesis, which graces the Pomona College dining room. The Huntington seemed a wonderful home for Vertical Composition, another of the artist’s masterpieces and one of his early explorations of the spaces between representation and abstraction—so characteristic of postwar California art. Lebrun was one of the reigning art gods of LA in the ’50s.

We were also moved to make this gift by the Huntington American art curator Dennis Carr’s great essay on this painting. Vertical Composition looks so terrific in The Huntington’s galleries, where it truly belongs, telling the SoCal and American art story.

What is your role in celebrating underrecognized artists?
Celebrating unjustly forgotten American and European masters has always been one of our guiding objectives. While many collectors are motivated by investment value, we come to this quest as cultural historians for whom name, style, or period matter less than the quality of each work of art. Restoring these artists to the American canon—many of whom were celebrated in their day, some not—whose paintings we find irresistible, is our goal. We also buy unsigned paintings, dictated by the same criterion, along with the question of whether they speak to us, which is the primary consideration.

What does it mean to you to have “Art for the People: WPA-Era Paintings from the Dijkstra Collection” at The Huntington?
Having The Huntington present “Art for the People” is a real milestone for us, giving us the chance to celebrate and share the work of the lost and suppressed great artists from this very relevant period with its many visitors.

What do you tell others about The Huntington?
We tell everyone that The Huntington is so much more than its amazing gardens and great Library. They need to visit its art galleries—both the British and the American—to have the full Huntington experience.

Gifts in kind play a vital role in expanding The Huntington’s collections. For more information, please contact Amanda Greenberger at 626-405-2263 or agreenberger@huntington.org.